? vrthng. 

John F. Fanselow
John F. Fanselow
By John F. Fanselow

Sandals? You’re kidding.

I wore shoes till I lived in Nigeria. When I got athlete’s foot during hot and humid summers in Chicago, I bought off the counter ointments and they relieved the symptoms somewhat.

In Nigeria the temperature and the humidity were much higher than those I had experienced in Chicago. The off the counter ointments had very little effect.

So I went to a doctor and asked for a prescription ointment. He said there was no need for ointment. All I had to do was wear sandals. Well as I said, I had worn shoes all my life and I thought of all sorts of reasons why sandals would not be a good option. They would not support my arches well, my feet would get dirty from the dust in the places where I walked, insects would bite my toes, they seemed too casual to wear with the shirt and tie that I wore when teaching, and people would smell the odor from my feet.

The doctor refused to prescribe ointments and insisted I try his suggested alternative. So I bought a pair of sandals. None of my fears materialized.

My feet had no odors, the small amount of dust that accumulated I could shake off in a heartbeat on my doorstep. The sandals I bought had strong arch support. My students said they thought that sandals were more stylish with shorts in the tropical rainforest. They said they had thought it strange for me to wear shoes.

I continued to wear sandals after I returned to New York because my feet continued to be so healthy. When I went to buy a new pair, my wife, who is Japanese, was with me. The salesperson asked me whether I ever visited Japan. I said I often did. He said that he would like me to try on a pair of sandals without straps. He knew that the Japanese remove their shoes before entering their homes. “You won’t have to bend over or sit down each time you enter and leave to strap and unstrap your sandals with these with no straps.”

I said that the sandals would fall off. He said they would not. I said that when I drive they will not stick to my right foot and, as a result, I will not be able to brake quickly. He kept saying that there is no difference between sandals with and without straps as far as keeping them on goes. I said I found this hard to believe.

He got up abruptly and returned with a pair of sandals without straps. He gently removed my sandals with straps and put the sandals without straps on. He said, “Please walk.”

I walked. They did not fall off. They were just as secure and comfortable as those with straps.


We are all creatures of habit both inside and outside of our classrooms. We follow rules that we have unconsciously learned. We get used to doing things in a particular way that we feel comfortable with.

One result of this fact is that, just as I first resisted sandals and then sandals without straps, when people suggest alternative activities for our teaching we conjure up all sorts of reasons why the alternative activities will not work. When we feel comfortable doing what we do, we continue acting the same way.

My suggestion is for you to be as skeptical about your present practices as about the alternatives. Ask how widely advocated pre-reading activities (such as brainstorming, scaffolding, predicting what a text is about) might not only be useless but also detrimental to learning. Question the value of memorizing individual words on note cards with the first language equivalent on the back of the cards. Consider ways that asking students to define words, or use new words in sentences, repeating words in isolation, memorizing rules in either English or students’ first languages, having students in pairs talk about their favorite songs, sports or whatever might be detrimental.

A singular message

I have never seen anyone else share this message at the beginning of each class or at the beginning of workshops or presentations that teacher educators make:

But if I am true to the question I started with, ? vrthng, then you must not only not believe anything I say but anything anyone else says. Do one of your usual activities, make a small change, and compare the effects, over and over and over.

If you follow these steps you will see how much more both you and your students are capable of. You will discover that inertia can be overcome with often exhilarating effects.

The changes I suggest are small, just as changes from shoes to sandals with straps to sandals without straps are small. But the results can be very big. The changes are also easy to employ, just as changing what we wear on our feet is very easy to do.

The three biggest issues in ELT

For me, the lack of skepticism, which I just mentioned, the acceptance of prescriptions and labels is the first one of the three biggest issues in ELT. The second is our failure to analyze what we and our students actually do. All too often we discuss what we do and plan lessons using labels with positive connotations: pre-reading activities, scaffolding, positive feedback, pair work, communicative activities, re-casting, comprehension check, activation of prior knowledge, experiential learning to name ten of dozens. We use the terms the same way doctors use low density and high-density cholesterol and vitamin B12. But the terms in our field are very, very imprecise. Yet we use them to say what we do rather than record and transcribe what we do.

The third issue is the belief that doing A results in B. “Pick a few key words from the text – 7-10 is usually a good number. Have the students write a brief story using each word. This familiarizes students with the vocabulary used in the text. Not only will this help improve reading comprehension, it will improve writing skills as well.” How can the so-called key words familiarize students with the text since they have not seen the text? How can writing a story using each word, many of which they probably are not familiar with, improve their writing? Writing is not using unfamiliar words to write a story with no purpose, no audience, and no theme.

Forget terms. Forget claims about using keywords in stories to improve reading comprehension and writing. Let’s look at the reality of what we do by analyzing recordings and 20 to 30 transcribed lines of what we and our students do. Describe what was said and done by each participant without using one label. Change what is said and done a little, record and transcribe the small changes and compare the results. Over and over and over. Describe and analyze what you do without jargon and with as few preconceived notions as possible.

In our analysis we have to be skeptical — the first issue — how is what we think is useful not useful and how is what we think is not useful possibly useful? What do our students think about what we do?

I am advocating nothing more than what explorers have urged for centuries:

Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.  T. Huxley


More of John’s explorations are coming early 2017 in a new book Small Changes in Teaching Big Results in Learning.

Celebrate The Banal – John F. Fanselow

Celebrate The Banal 


— John F. Fanselow

What have I learned? What am I learning?

The first thought I had when asked me to write something in response to these questions was that anything that I wrote would be banal—obvious and boring. I was a bit relieved to find that the origin of banal was “common to all” which heartened me. I was heartened because one of the lessons I have learned is that if we explore what we are doing together and listen to points of view that are different from our own we can learn much more. I realize that listening to those with a different perspective seems to contradict the “common to all” idea. But I interpret “common to all” meaning all have something to contribute.

I have learned through the years that it is just as important to get students’ opinions as colleagues. In the beginning, students tend to say only what they think you want them to say. But when I tell them to write 2 things that they do not like and 2 things that they do like, with no names on the comments, they begin to write what they feel and believe. I have learned that a few words from a student who is weak is just as valuable as many words from a student who is strong. What do the words weak and strong mean anyway?  So I am continuing to learn ways that I can translate the words “common to all” into practice.

I studied literature in university. Though we read some literary criticism, many of my professors kept asking us to write what a poem or short story or book chapter meant to us. After we shared our interpretations we saw how we each quite different ideas of the meanings of what we read. The professors then shared their reflections and pointed out what various critics had written.

For my dissertation, I asked students to react to short stories that they read. Most of them simply retold the story. They made hardly any interpretations. They did not identify with the characters. They had no emotional responses. I was distressed by what they said. But when I looked at the textbooks they were using the majority of questions about what they read asked for recall! So it was clear that the authors of the textbooks had different ideas from my literature professors and my focus on “common to all”.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a former colleague of mine at Teachers College, Columbia University is a historian. In 2000, she published a book which she subtitled “The Troubling History of Education Research”. She contrasts the ideas of two often-quoted professors from Teachers College: Thorndike and Dewey. Thorndike said that we can measure everything. Dewey was keen for teachers and students to explore, not prepare for tests or be tested all the time. She points out that though there is a quote from Dewey above the entry to Teachers College, there is no building named after him. There is one named after Thorndike.

Those who measure are very much in control these days. But from my days at university to my teaching since then I have learned how detrimental measurement can be. Eleanor Duckworth who has taught in the Department of Education at Harvard for many years edited a book called “Tell me more” in 2001. The subtitle is “Listening to learners explain.” Though she was not in any of my classes in college, she is advocating what my professors practiced: everyone has something to offer.

The first book I produced was a collection of lesson plans from fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who like me had taught in Nigeria for two years. One purpose of the book—Teaching English in Exhilarating Circumstances—was to provide suggestions that we would have found useful when we started our teaching. But another purpose was to remind the new teachers that if they shared plans with each other as well as with their students they could learn more than if they just read books produced by commercial publishers.

I just completed my first on line live iTDi course with 35 teachers from 8 countries. I was moved by the candor of most of the participants. And both they and I saw how teachers with different amounts of experience and levels of English and in very different settings could learn from each other.

States in the US are signing up to require all schools in their states to follow what is called the Common Core Standards. These so called standards represent to me the opposite of my idea that all have something to contribute. Tragically, what I continue to learn is that people are constantly assaulting the idea that everyone has something to offer and that we can all learn from each other. Nothing new here. Emerson, Thoreau, Freire, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Whitman, Dewey, Montessori, Gatto, Postman, Frank Smith, to name a few of my soul mates, all showed how Common Core Standards are detrimental to learning. Celebrate the banal!

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Learning to See – John

The Obvious Can Be Difficult To See    — John F. Fanselow

. . . the obvious can be very difficult for people to see.
(Bateson, 1972, p. 429)

Why? According to Bateson, it is because “. . . people are self-corrective systems. They are self-corrective against disturbance, and if the obvious is not of a kind that they can easily assimilate without internal disturbance, their self-corrective mechanisms work to sidetrack it.”

I illustrate the theme with his sorting activity. Write down which stamps below contain these categories:

Sources of heat


I have asked hundreds of people to sort the 4 stamps using their own categories. Hardly any used four categories I asked you to use.  Even with Non-English as a label, few wrote Olympiad, XIII or Los Angeles in stamp 1 or Graf Zeppelin in stamp 3 or Pocahontas in 4. The torches in 1 and the engines in 3 were rarely seen. It usually takes quite a bit of time to notice the clouds and the globe showing the oceans in 1 and 3.

We are used to looking at denominations, country and maybe the date on stamps. Knowing that the first stamp has torches is not particularly important information. Obviously Lincoln is the focus of the second stamp and not the two women engraved on the sides as decoration.

What I just asked you to do with the stamps is central to the understanding of our teaching.

1.  By using labels to highlight features that are not obvious, you had to analyze. Of course in looking at your teaching you should use labels you are familiar with initially.  Ones I often hear include these:

off task on task

teacher talk student talk

clear explanation

unclear explanation

But as you look at samples of your teaching, with students and colleagues if possible, you will all create new labels: necks straight, students using erasers every time I say “Mistakes are OK”, using their first language to clarify what I am doing or to chat. The more original and the less use of jargon from methods books the better.

2.  I asked you to look at a small amount of data in different ways. If  you transcribe a recording that fills one A4 sheet of paper, it will be enough data to see something new about what you and your students are doing. The point is to look at a small amount of data from multiple perspectives rather than to look at a lot of data from one perspective.

3. Some make judgments like “Ugly design, boring color” in the process of sorting stamps. Judgments are very, very common when teachers first hear what they say and their students do. “Wow, I talk too much; some students wrote too slowly.”  I used to encourage teachers not to judge but advocate writing judgments down. Then, look for examples in the recording and transcription that support the judgments and do not support their judgments. And then write ways that what you initially think is negative—like students writing slowly—might be positive. As teachers consider how talking a lot might be helpful some have asked their students to transcribe their talk. They realize that much of what they say is natural but that in fact students do not understand them. As they transcribe and practice teachers’ language, they improve their listening and master many of the patterns.

I am not suggesting that you should not vary the amount of talk but rather to see how what we initially think is positive or negative can in fact be the opposite.

4. I urge you to spend fifteen minutes twice a week. This adds up to a lot of time in a term but one purpose of the analysis is to plan a change in your teaching so transcribing and analyzing becomes planning time.

634 Words
Grade Level 8.3
Flesch Reading Ease 65%

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Breaking Rules – John

John F. Fanselow’s work has a continuing influence on generations of teachers, teacher trainers, and material writers. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his ground-breaking book, Breaking Rules. What better time to join John on a journey of discovery in an intimate five-week online course designed by John to help teachers make real changes in their teaching as they learn to see the obvious, break unconscious rules, and try the opposite? Click for further course details and registration here.

What Would Happen If …. ?      John F. Fanselow

Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. — T.H. Huxley


The most frequent questions I am asked after workshops and classes are usually about how I come up with activities and why I insist on making even my plenary sessions interactive. My short answer usually is, “I have no idea.”  I do offer possible explanations but always with the caveat that explaining why we do and do not do things is very, very, very speculative.

I do not advocate breaking rules to be different or distinctive but rather to explore.

The first candidate is the curiosity we are born with.  I tap this and so I consider what I do as natural and perhaps quite normal.  For me, breaking rules and doing the opposite are simply attempts to answer the question we ask as children,

“What would happen if . . .?”

Like a child, I wonder.

As a child, I was curious about how switches turned lights on and off, partly because my father was an electrician. My father gave me switches to play with, which nourished my curiosity.

I was curious about more than switches. My parents bought me a chemistry set and an erector set, which had motors and metal parts, I could screw together to make things like windmills and bridges. I learned knot tying, canoeing, plant identification in the Boy Scouts. I built a clubhouse in our yard from lumber my friends and I scavenged along the railroad tracks near our house.

In addition to these activities that were at that time reserved mainly for boys, I also became interested in baking. I loved desserts and wanted to learn how to make them. I learned by watching a TV show. I was the only boy in our neighborhood that was making éclairs, angel food cake and fruitcakes, to name a few desserts that particularly fascinated me. My classmates were playing baseball and other sports as I was baking. My parents were very indulgent and let me follow my curiosity wherever it went rather than stifle it.

As I said, reasons why I continue to want to always ask, “What would happen if . . .?” is speculative.  But I want to state some ways that people misunderstand Breaking Rules that are not speculative but true.

First, I do not advocate breaking rules to be different or distinctive but rather to explore. The subtitle of my book Breaking Rules is Generating and Exploring Alternatives. I urge teachers to try alternatives to see what difference they make. If we do the same thing over and over not only are we likely to be bored, but our students will be also. Vitality comes from change. Routine leads to stagnation.

Second, I urge teachers to analyze what they do rather than to judge what they do. Judgments, based on preconceived notions and beliefs, prevent genuine exploration. “I can’t do this because my students will be confused,” we might be tempted to say, but we can only see to what extent our students will or will not be confused if we try the this. We have to also ask how being confused could possibly be positive rather than negative.

Third, I urge teachers to describe in very, very precise detail what the words It works and It doesn’t work refer to. Hardly any teachers record and transcribe parts of classes to identify the It much less the works and doesn’t work. When teachers analyze transcripts of their teaching, they can see that the claims we usually make for what works and does not work are so general as to be meaningless. There are loads of other terms that are equally dangerous such as scaffolding, positive feedback, lived experience. These are not only imprecise but inconsistently used so if we look at five teachers saying they are doing scaffolding, we will see that they are doing five totally different activities.

Fourth, I advocate that teachers see that any communication has multiple characteristics. In Breaking Rules I identified 5—the source and target, the purpose, the medium used, the way the medium was used and the content. Each person can add others or create their own, but we cannot describe any communication with only one label.

We need to look at what we do, make small changes, and compare the results.

A fifth theme of Breaking Rules is that very small changes—asking students to underline words they know rather than ones they do not know—can have very large consequences. Such small details are rarely noticed much less discussed in post observation conversations or articles about methods. Again, the point is precision, not breaking rules to be rebellious or different.

Finally, I advocate that teachers make multiple interpretations of transcriptions of what they and their students say and do. Did the students learn anything? Did they enjoy it? Was their curiosity nourished or dampened? Did they become more able to learn on their own?  The words I just used are fuzzy and slippery which is all the more reason to discuss multiple interpretations with many examples and always asking how what we think is good is not and how what we think is bad not.

I just said “Finally” but I lied! The central point of Breaking Rules is that I believe that we should not listen to so called experts, researchers or leaders in our field alone. Rather, we need to look at what we do, make small changes, and compare the results. Of course we can learn a lot from reading and attending conferences. But we can learn much more and can be more powerful teachers if we explore what we are doing in precise detail.

He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer:
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars

– William Blake, quoted in Breaking Rules.

Music, Stories and Magic – John

It is hard to stand up because I get so stiff when I sit down.John F. Fanselow

by John F. Fanselow

Every time I find it painful to stand up after a meal either at home or a restaurant, I remember the title of this blog, which is a comment one of my aunts used to make every time she moved from a sitting to a standing position.

About 25 years ago, while I was living in New York I began to feel a lot of back pain after I sat a long time or walked a lot. I mentioned this to a friend who was a professional piano player.  She said that she had begun to experience a lot of back pain a few years earlier both during her practice and when she was performing. A fellow musician suggested she visit a practitioner of The Alexander Technique.

I am now living in Japan so when I remembered how my back pain decreased when I worked to change the habits of how I stood, sat and walked in New York, The Alexander Technique did not come immediately to mind as a way to alleviate my pain. But out of the blue one of my wife’s graduate students who is a nurse mentioned in a conversation that her sister was an Alexander Technique practitioner!

We called her immediately and I have now had two sessions with her. Though it has been 25 years since I last had a session, after both sessions I felt as if I was re-living the sessions 25 years ago in New York.

I will not tax your mind with loads of a lot of details about what the Alexander Technique is about, just a few details. Frederick Alexander was an actor who was born in Australia in 1869. As a young man he was frustrated because though he could speak with no problems with friends, when he stood on a stage to recite Shakespeare he lost his voice. He decided to compare his posture when he spoke with friends and when he was on stage to recite Shakespeare. He noticed great differences between how he stood and moved in both settings.

Over time, he was able to overcome his loss of voice by standing on stage the same way he stood when he was chatting with friends.

You can find many more details about his life and his technique on the Internet. I just want to point out one lesson that I have been reminded of and learned in the two sessions I have just experienced in Japan.

In Japan, the chairs I sit in at our dining room table are about 4 inches/12 centimeters lower than the ones I sit on in New York. This means that when I sit in a chair in Japan my legs between my knees and my pelvis are pointing up rather than parallel with the floor. This puts a great deal of strain on my legs and back.

I have now put a 4-inch/12 centimeter pad on the chair I sit in when I eat. I can now sit down and stand up without putting my hands on the arms of the chair to ease me into either a sitting or standing position.

I had lunch with a person 25 years younger than I am last week in our apartment—American like me. He is the same height as I am. When he sat down I noticed that he braced himself on the arms of one of our dining room chairs. And when he stood up he propped himself up putting his hands on the arms of the chairs.  His habits were the same as mine and just as detrimental to the long-term negative effects on our bodies.

I am excited by the Alexander Technique not only because I have found it beneficial to the way I sit, walk, stand and lie down but also because I think that Alexander has lessons for teachers that are in line with what I have been advocating for many years. I am not promoting the Alexander Technique for you to deal with your back pain, though I think it will alleviate it. Rather I am promoting Alexander’s ideas because they are in tune with what I have been advocating for decades to better understand our teaching.

1. Most of what we do is out of consciousness—I call this following rules and Alexander calls it following habits.

2. To change how we teach or sit or stand, we need to observe in minute detail a minute or two of our behaviors. Then we have to change one of our behaviors slightly. If we sit on a chair that is too low for us so that our legs between our knees and pelvis are pointing upward rather than parallel with the floor, we need to put something on the chair seat so our legs are parallel with the floor.

If students use erasers during dictations so that you cannot see what words they wrote incorrectly you have to ask them to put their erasers in their pencil cases so that you can see what they wrote and how it is similar and different from what you said.

Small changes and no judgments! Alexander used the word “habits” because he had no interest in judging people about having bad posture or bad habits of sitting or walking. He just wanted people to learn awareness of how if they sat or stood or walked one way or another there would be different consequence. Ditto my long-term call to be descriptive and analytical rather than judgmental. The rules or habits we follow are inculcated in us through years. To make even small changes — something both Alexander and I advocate — requires that we are non-judgmental. - John F. Fanselow

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