Online personalities

I’ve recently read a BBC article about rather interesting research results: apparently, in the world of online work it’s not the charismatic people who are getting promoted nowadays. It’s the ‘working horses’ who do not rely so much on their charm and prefer to get the job done. The author of the article quotes one of the researchers: ‘Virtually, we are less swayed by someone’s personality”.

Naturally, I’m thinking about how this applies to the online classroom. If you tend to be a charismatic teacher, how well has this translated to the online medium? And who are the best teachers now? And, most importantly, how can we become the best teachers? Thinking…


Business mazes for serious learning

If you’re looking for a serious game for your Business English or workplace skills learners, you might want to check this oldie but goldie: Business Mazes by Joni Farthing (published in 1982, but a few examples have been converted to html and read quite well). You don’t have to be a fan of ‘choose-your-adventure’ stories to enjoy them: the participants are easy to identify with, the dilemmas are more or less easy to resolve but require some discussion. They could even inspire some of the students to write a few mazes of their own!

Do you speak corporate?

If you like teaching Business English, here’s a wonderful article that can keep your higher-level learners busy and happy. Olga Khazan from The Atlantic writes about corporate buzzwords from a surprisingly balanced perspective (surprisingly because of the headline: ‘Corporate Buzzwords Are How Workers Pretend to Be Adults’). In fact, even though phrases like ‘disruption‘, ‘touch base‘ and ‘growth hacking‘ can be seen as annoying, fake or pretentious, knowing how and when to use them can save you time in the workplace, help you transition from home to work (like a business suit you put on in the morning), and generally make you feel part of the in-group.

As for English language learners, the usefulness of corporate speak is even greater – you need to learn it before you can ditch it, right?

Paying it forward

I was reading the PBS Research Digest this morning and found this account of research done by the University of California: apparently, random acts of kindness in the workplace encourage the recipients to ‘pay it forward’ and result in ten times more prosocial actions within a month. While the application of this effect in the workplace is obvious: let’s just be kinder to each other on purpose, I was wondering if the same idea could be used in the language classroom. For example, students can be assigned a random buddy that they need to help in secret, or they need to observe their ‘buddy’ more closely and write down the best language they have used in the lesson… I haven’t experimented with it myself, but it sounds very promising!

Not very soft skills

I’ve been involved in professional skills training for some time, though I rarely write about it. This week, however, has brought new questions: how do you get learners on board if most of their learning experience has been either with General and Business English, or simply with the hard skills they need in their jobs? This article from Forbes might become part of the answer because it explains the urgency of developing skills for the workplace in our VUCA world, offers interesting statistics, and touches upon the problem of terminology (suggesting that soft skills should be called work/life skills). And the best thing about it is the whole idea of ongoing professional and personal development: “We’ll never be perfect human beings, especially at work/life skills. Instead, we’re works in progress, always learning, adapting and practicing as the external world changes around us”. So, if there is a difficult situation, a big change a work (looking at you, the COVID-19 pivot), we adapt and sign up for a course to adapt even more 🙂

Open or closed questions?


Now this activity is very much about workplace skills or even life skills, and can be transferred to the ELT context to bring an extra dimension into your grammar practice. The idea is to demonstrate the difference between fact checking and information gathering. In short, the participants have to guess each other’s secret words by asking only closed, and then only open, questions – and hopefully they will see that open questions let them guess faster. (Check the original post for a complete description of the activity.) I’d say it’s more suitable for the Intermediate level and upwards: lower levels would not have enough language to answer questions at length, which defeats the purpose of the activity. And of course, doing it online is even easier: use the private chat function to give out the ‘secret’ words, put the learners into breakout rooms in pairs or threes, and have them return to the main room as soon as they are done (and possibly get another set of words).

P.S. Check out one of my earlier posts about questions, which refers to the QFT technique – another idea from an non-ELT context that we can borrow.

Projects for real (15 of 15): putting it all together


Phew, this was the longest series ever! I’m not exactly George Martin, but there was a whole new world to explore – and I feel I’ve lost a few impatient readers on the way 😉

Why am I so concerned about projects? As I said before, projects in the English teaching classroom are an amazing tool: they can motivate the learners, they give them an opportunity to use real-world language, they encourage collaboration and teamwork and other wonderful thinks. However, we often focus on the outcomes of the project (poster, presentation, school play) and don’t give as much attention to the process of working on a project, or principles of project management. And so at best, we’re missing out on a great opportunity to develop the learners’ soft skills. At worst, our project can flop – disappointment and demotivation for both the teacher and the students.

This is why this year I’ve been researching how to make projects real for teenagers, and here are my conclusions so far:

  1. It is possible to draw the learners attention to product management if you plan it well.
  2. Real-life project objectives are inherently more motivating than empty ‘entertaining’ ones.
  3. It helps if learners can learn proper project terminology.
  4. …and a bit of theory.
  5. They can be encouraged to apply their project management skills at home and in other contexts – you don’t have to wait till you enter the workforce!
  6. The success of a project depends to a large extent on how you can help your learners work as a team.
  7. Before assigning a project, you need to answer a lot of practical questions: e.g. who sets the deadlines, who distributes the roles, how long is your project going to be, how it is going to be graded.
  8. There is a lot we can learn from STEM subjects:acquiring knowledge and experience is inherently pleasurable and motivating. (But you don’t need to build a toy car or a Rube Goldberg’s machine. Have the students plan their own course or research language phenomena.)
  9. It’s important to choose the right words and metaphors: translate PM into younger people’s language.
  10. …. or even have them read a book about project management.
  11. There are loads of ready-made toolkits for teachers that can save us time.
  12. There are assessment templates, too.
  13. The traditional, or ‘waterfall’ project management is not the only way to organise project-based learning.  Agile is simpler than it sounds.
  14. It has been done before, and it seems to work!

So, the first step has been made: I have a very clear idea of what I’m going to experiment with – once I have a bit more time with my students. Watch this space 🙂

New series: projects for real (1 of 15)


Project methodology in English language teaching is old news, you say? Well, yes and no: on the one hand, projects are a staple in the ELT classroom. On the other hand, we often focus on the outputs (poster, web page, time capsule…) and don’t teach the learners how to work on a project. Where is the timeline and the Gantt chart? The RAG update? The health check? The manager in me squirms at the lack of accountability and the risks involved, and the teacher knows all too well how often these learner projects fail or don’t reach the learning objectives. And just think about the lost possibilities: the students could have acquired very useful workplace skills if they had been given the right professional tools!

Luckily, there is some work being done in this area by more academic people than me, and here’s the first installment in the series: a great article by Kim Liegel which outlines the most important principles of managing a project in the classroom and offers excellent worksheets and checklists. There’s more to come.