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Global Educator David Nunan Photograph courtesy of David Nunan

Teaching to the Heart and Head

In teacher education seminars and conferences, a common warm-up task is for the workshop leader to ask participants to take a few minutes to think of an inspirational teacher that they had in school or elsewhere, to identify what it was that made this person inspirational, and pinpoint what qualities that person had. I feel uncomfortable when I get asked to do this task. I can readily remember a lot of uninspiring teachers, but not very many inspirational ones.

I remember one particularly discouraging conversation that took place between one of my teachers and me towards the end of my final year in high school. I grew up in a small mining town over 1,000 kilometers from the nearest big city, and most students went to work in the mines upon leaving school. I had other aspirations. The brief conversation between the teacher and me went something like this.
Teacher: So, Nunan, what do you plan to do when you finish high school?
Me: I hope to go to university, Sir.
Teacher: (with a sarcastic laugh) You’ll never go anywhere, Nunan.

As it turned out, I was lucky enough to get into a university in Sydney – the big city all the way over on the east coast of Australia. When I arrived there, I sent my teacher a postcard. After I graduated and began to travel, I sent him postcards from Singapore, Bangkok, Rome, Paris and London. He never bothered to reply, but I hope that he got the message!

My daughter had much better luck with her high school teachers in Hong Kong. In the main, they were highly professional and encouraging. Their question was never, “What do you think you’ll do when you finish school?” but, “Which university do you aspire to attend?” During her first year in high school, I asked her who her favorite teacher was. “My Spanish teacher,” she replied. “Oh, really, and why is that?” “Because she loves me,” she replied, and then added, “and I love her.” Her Spanish teacher had an essential attribute of all inspirational teachers: she cared deeply for her learners, and conveyed that care to her students.

Both of these stories illustrate the importance of the affective or emotional side of learning. Too often, we think of learning as a purely cognitive or intellectual process and overlook the emotional dimension. However, the emotions are every bit as important. My daughter was inspired to succeed at learning Spanish because her teacher created a positive emotional atmosphere in the classroom. Paradoxically, I was motivated to continue with my education after high school partly to prove my teacher was wrong in doubting that I had the ability to succeed in higher education. A less stubborn person might have heeded the teacher’s skepticism and given up.

Considerable research has been carried out into the effect of the emotions on learning, both in terms of facilitating the learning process and inhibiting it. One of the challenges in doing this work is that emotions are invisible: they are locked inside the learner. All we can do is observe the learner’s behavior and make inferences about the state of their emotional health as well as the contextual factors that are assumed to affect their emotions. “Yoko gets very anxious when she has to take a test.” “Rebecca is highly motivated by her teacher.” “I just can’t identify with Russian culture.”

However, an inspirational teacher must do more than create a warm and caring environment in the classroom. The teacher must also cater to the cognitive, or intellectual side of language learning. Australian educator, Dr. Pauline Gibbons (2009), identifies two important aspects to this side of the learning process. The first is the intellectual demand that learning tasks creates for the learners (i.e. how hard they make the learners think), and the amount of support that teachers provide for the learners. Based on her model there are four types of teachers:
1: Those who create tasks that are not demanding for their learners and who give limited support to the learners;
2: Those who create tasks that are not demanding for their learners but who give a great deal of support to the learners
3: Those who create tasks that are demanding for their learners and who give limited support to the learners;
4: Those who create tasks that are demanding for their learners but who give a great deal of support to the learners.

Gibbons argues that the best teachers are those who create intellectually demanding tasks for their learners and then provide a great deal of support in the classroom to help the learners achieve success on the tasks. She cites research demonstrating that “students from all backgrounds are more engaged when classroom work is cognitively challenging than when it consists solely of conventional low-level work.” However, she goes on to say, “High challenge (tasks we cannot do unaided) [must be] accompanied by high support (the scaffolding that enables us to complete these tasks successfully).” Teachers who simultaneously challenge and support their learners will inspire them to reach significantly higher levels of achievement than the teacher who presents the learners with tasks which don’t challenge them to strive to achieve their full potential. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #279 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

David Nunan

Tokyo Journal columnist Dr. David Nunan is a former president of the TESOL International Association, the world's largest language teaching organization and the world's leading textbook series author. Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Anaheim University Graduate School of Education, David is a world-renowned linguist and best- selling author of English language teaching textbooks for such publishers as Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Thomson Learning. His English language teaching textbook series Go For It is the largest selling textbook series in the world with total sales exceeding 2.5 billion books. David has been involved in teaching graduate programs for prestigious institutions like the University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, and many more.


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