He begins his talk with a short clip from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". As a coursework writer he hesitates to share a clip found on "mybooksucks.com" but admits there are few examples as apt as demonstrations of poor teaching. Anyone, anyone...Bueller?
He goes on to think about all the issues that are evident in the film that make the class as boring as it is. Why are they so disinterested? The answer, he says, is their emotional engagement.
But if learning is associated with the brain, what role, then, do emotions play? Why is success of language learning dependent on emotion. He ventures onto thin ice with the Greek crowd by risking a quote from Aristotle which lists the three elements of persuasion: ethos (possessing credibility), pathos (emotional engagement to the audience) and logos (having the logic behind the arguments).
He discusses the higher role given to logos and ethos in the Western Hemisphere due to the rise of academia and celebration of knowledge. However, modern neuroscience is now investigating how important emotions are to neural processing and reasoning. "Emotions and intelligence go hand in hand, which is why we humans - highly intelligent creatures - are so emotional." He introduces the theme of the talk that positive emotional feelings have an impact on the memory pathway and neural processing our learners go through (stating the caveat that he is not in fact a neuroscientist, but rather bases his arguments on research in the field, particularly that of James Zull).
He moved on to a quote from an adult who has learned 6 languages, 4 from self-study.
This quotation serves to show how intrinsic motivation derived from an authentic love of language and enjoyment of the learning process can drive successful learning. The flip side of the coin being that anxiety, stress and other forms of anguish inhibiting learning.
He discusses the idea many teachers and learners have of teaching and learning of the brain as a sort of warehouse to be filled with knowledge which is deposited there by the teacher. Obviously this is not the real picture.
Brain function is much more sophisticated than that, and the neocortex or "gray matter" being the newest portion of the brain he claims to be one of the most crucial parts to learning and social behavior. A comparison of cross sectioned infant neocortex samples shows that this part of the brain grows and develops quickly during the first two years of life as infants develop and learn much of the foundations of their future knowledge as they discover the world around them. There is much research which supports that strong emotional events trigger deeper and more substantial neural development and release of neurotransmitters in developing brains.
Cognitive science research shows release of serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters which are released during strong emotional events also trigger increased development of new synaptic pathways in the brain. From this he draws to conclusions: learning is a physical process, and the brain is an organ of emotion.
The brain's fear and pleasure systems act as indicators for behavior. Positive behavior is rewarded with pleasure in order to lead us to repeat that behavior while negative behavior leads us to fear and avoid hazardous or otherwise negative stimuli. Fight, flight or freeze (which not surprisingly sound quite a bit like some students' reactions to being called to speak or act before they're quite ready).
These effects are said by some to be nullified by practice: "iI they practice enough, they'll be more comfortable and learn better" being a common belief. However (!!) of course practice is only as good as the motivation and interest behind it. Repetitive, monotonous and dull input becomes noise that, just like traffic noises in a city, our students learn to tune out.
Multi sensory input and relevance are the keys to engagement. He goes on to list key principles behind emotional engagement:
The need to understand your environment, this being necessary for survival. As teachers we manage this through task challenge to maintain interest (not too easy and boring, not too difficult and frustrating). This is a growing issue in particular as it relates to critical thinking.
There is also relevance. Memory being dependent on some connection to other parts of our life. The content of input must have some reason for our learners' brains to recognize importance to their life. EAP and ESP being prime examples of this choice of content to specific learners. General English courses are seen as more challenging to tailor due to the variety of interests in any given group.
Movement is his next point, with a relevant quote from Zull:
He uses the example of anticipated narrative in the context of fiction to describe what he means by movement. We read long novels with interest because we are constantly active in our minds anticipating the next steps to come. This feeling of movement is abstract and mental but no less real.
Next he discusses mythic, romantic, philosophical and ironic understanding as defines by Kieran Egan. The stages where students are able to understand basic good vs evil narratives as children moving into the stage where emotional motivations in narrative are clear. Later students are able to analyze more abstract philosophical ties within a story. Lastly as adults the use of irony and clear understanding of its use shows fully developed intellectual skill. These cognitive skills developed through reading and analysis of books with a news for engaging works.
He gives an anecdotal example of getting a cheap romance novel in an act of desperation at an airport and LOVING it despite its lowbrow status in the world of literature. Despite having a weak story and overall poor writing, the movement of the story drew him in and kept him raptly engaged in the book.
He moves into a quote on flow theory:
Where the basic idea is about the state we enter when fully engaged in a task due to our own emotional engagement.
He then begins to conclude by bringing up the various practical elements and themes we can add to our classes to stimulate anticipated movement and natural engagement in classrooms.
He gives us the example of picture pairs where one is a standard "bland" picture from a course book speaking or writing task and the other is a more interesting alternative to develop a story from. For example, these two images to talk about public transport:
Clearly there is a winner for a source of authentic and interesting ideas.
He then moves on to the discussion of language ownership. Citing the claims kids make such as "No! Don't help me, I want to do it myself!" This is a natural way of engaging in the material that many children have and many adults have lost at some stage in their education. The drive of owning your learning and experimentation with language develops the ownership of skill development and follows naturally into learner autonomy.
This then moves into the idea that we as teachers need to move into a word of error-welcoming engagement and a move away from traditional pedagogy.
His final summary brings back the points he has made during the talk:
And ends with a bit of wonderful advice from the polyglot learner he had quoted quoted earlier: