Learning from students

I believe that a big part of teaching as discovery is learning from our students. Here and there I have reminded teachers to ask their students what they like and do not like about a particular activity, text of classroom rule. I urge teachers to have students write with no names.


But in addition to asking about activities I think we can learn when we ask them about the physical features of their classrooms.

I visited a high school in Japan some months ago and the principal asked the teacher I had visited what I had thought of the school. After commenting on the students, who were very friendly to me as I wandered through the halls, I said I thought the walls were a bit drab.

The principal asked the teacher to ask the students what they thought of the walls and they said “colorless, gray, unexciting,” and other similar words. The students said they would like each classroom painted a different color and when they walked through the halls they would move from the outer wall of one classroom that was red to another that was green, blue, and yellow.

The principal asked the teacher to take some students to a paint store and select the colors they wanted on the condition that they would do the painting together. The students were thrilled and now the classrooms and hallways are very colorful and I might add cheerful.


In another school I visited the chairs had metal legs and the floor was cement. When the students moved their chairs the metal moving on the cement was almost painful to hear.

When the teacher asked for suggestions about how to decrease the sound  a few pointed out that there was a tennis school nearby and maybe they could ask if the person in charge of the school would give old used balls to the students rather than throwing them away. Why? Well the students said if they  cut them in half or made a hole in them and put one on each of the four legs they sound would be eliminated. Well, from painful noise to silence meant that the teachers had students separate in pairs and groups much more than previously.  So the interaction in most classrooms changed dramatically be asked the students to suggest a way to decrease the sound of chairs scraping on cement.


I mentioned that I had mentioned the importance of asking students what they liked and did like and wanted more and less of incidentally. Richard L. Allwright has explored student suggestions in great detail so if you want to learn more check out his writing.

Enjoy, enjoy

Testing revisited


ELT journal testing

Copy of Informed Consent Form ELT journal testing

Fellow explorers,

In one of the videos that is available to those who buy Small Changes in teaching, big results in learning, I discuss standardized tests with two teachers. In our discussion I refer to an Informed Consent Form that I wrote as a satire on required standardized testing. Just as those who are in experiment using a new drug have to sign an informed consent form, I think those forced to take commercial exams should have to sign an informed consent form.

I am attaching the form, used in conjunction with video 19.

I am also attaching an article by Brian Tomlinson in which he points out a central flaw in so called standardized tests. He sent me the reference to the article after he read my Informed Consent Form saying he too had some objections to the test industry.

As I say in my book, don’t believe anything I say. What I suggest, what I write about I do to raise questions.

The Japanese TESOL affiliate conference

I just returned from the JALT conference with a theme of diversity. Dianne  Larsen Freeman was one of the plenary speakers and one of the few who in my experience spoke about the theme which in this time in lives is a matter of life and death for many people. I last saw Dianne at TESOL Russia where we had both been invited to do back to back plenaries. When we met in Russia she did not say “Good to see you; how are you?” but rather “John, where are your sandals?” since till that time I was noted for wearing sandals. I describe why in the introduction to my new book Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning.

I also caught up with Sandra McKay who was the editor of the TESOL Quarterly for many years, some overlapping with my term as TESOL President. I told her that as TESOL President, Program Chair of the 1976 TESOL Conference in NY and as President of the New York State affiliate i had not devoted as much time as she had as editor of the TESOL Quarterly. She was so thorough, so supportive and so gracious–such service!

I was reminded of the service members of TESOL and the affiliates put in when I met L. Ohashi the person who led the team that organized the Shizuoka conference last week end. All selfless, dedicated volunteers.

I was thrilled to see teachers I had worked with during the last 30 ish years in Japan and elsewhere. I am attaching a photo of the author of a graded reader that I used in Small Changes in Teaching, Big results in Learning. When the person taking the photograph said “The book is upside down.” Allison, said, “Right; this is the way I am sure John wants it.” TRY THE OPPOSITE.


Enjoy, enjoy. And when you have a chance salute professionals who spend so much time free to support us all.


All the best.


Rules re-visited

Dear Phil,

You are one of the few who has ever asked about rules. Your questions are very important and I wonder why others have not raised the issue.

First, like all terms, out of consciousness and unconsciously or blindly following rules are slippery terms as I and others use them. (Having said others, I have not read any others who in fact discuss these. But if any do, they will be as slippery when others use them as when I use them.

As always, examples can clarify.

Here are a few. But I would like to remind you and others who read the blog that you can explore the meanings as you look at short clips of interactions in your classes, or outside of your classes.

There is no hierarchy in the order of the items–1 is not more important than 2, etc. The numbers just show the sequence.

!. Teachers who teach students in low level classes and high level classes–those who have less ability with language and with more ability–treat them very differently. Teachers tend to wait 2 to 5 times longer between the time they ask a question and call on a student in an upper level class than in a lower level class. Yet the students with less ability need more time rather than less.  Teachers are unaware of the different amounts of time they provide students until they listen to recordings and time the number of seconds between asking the questions and calling on a student to answer the questions.


2. When students do not answer a question the teachers tend to rephrase the question. When the students still do not respond they rephrase the question again. Many students did not understand the first question and some think the subsequent questions are different ones rather than paraphrases. Teachers in most cases are not aware they do this until they record and transcribe their questions.

3. Teachers often say “very good” after students respond. When they listen to student responses they hear that they say “very good” even when the response is incorrect. But during class they are unaware of this.

4. Almost every teacher including myself is constantly surprised at how much we talk when we listen to a recording. Over and over studies show we talk at least two thirds of the time. Student responses are often one or just a few words in contrast to our multiple word statements and questions.

5. When I observe international students in Japan using chopsticks in a cafeteria with Japanese students I often ask them to compare how they each hold chopsticks. Almost all international students hold the chopsticks in the middle while the Japanese students hold them close to the top. Until I ask them to compare how they hold them they are unaware of the difference.

6. Observe a few students in a row in a class as they push their hand through their hair. When one student does it often another student begins to more the hand in the same way, then a third student. When they watch a video they are not only unaware of the fact that they were moving one had through their hair but are astonished that often others move their hands in the same way.

7. Video students’ feet during a lesson. Often many will be tapping one foot even though they are not listening to music. Watching the tape they see the tapping which when asked say they were unaware of as they were doing it during class.

8. While taking attendance some teachers smile after certain students say “here” but do not when others do. Some scowl when some students respond but keep a neutral face when others do.  Again realized only after viewing a video of their faces and the faces of students who they use different expressions with.

9. Often teachers pace back and forth in front of the room as they explain something. Some used to call this “the expectant parent syndrome” as fathers often pace back and forth as their wife is giving birth–more in the days when fathers could not be present in the birthing rom. But as in all the other cases, they realized they were walking only after looking at a video recording. No mention in the lesson plans to pace back and forth.

10. If you look at video 2 in Small changes you will see I comment on how I hold my hand steady as students read aloud. No realization of this until I viewed the video. You will see facial expressions in the video which show I am not engaged also–not part of my plan and out of awareness till after the fact.

11. When I have shown teachers in a video to non teachers a frequent question is “Why is the teacher so patronizing?” We do not mean to be patronizing but some think we are. So it can be useful to ask people in other lines of work to look at our behaviors and we will often see in a new light much of our out of conscious behavior.

12. Many of my students used to call me “Mr. Poker Face” because they thought I did not smile. I say “thought” but in fact I saw when I looked at a video or a photograph that in fact I did not smile very much. A rule I worked to change.

Not all things we do that we are not aware of are necessarily detrimental, but some are. The first step is awareness and the next steps are to alter what we and our students do and see what differences emerge. Giving students longer time to respond has consistently shown that the responses are longer and more complex.

Focus on speed, which I mentioned as not always useful in my last blog, produces less rich language and superficial thinking.

Reconsidering speed

Dear Fellow Explorers,

We sometimes tell students “Read the text in 15 minutes.” or Read the text in 10 minutes, start.”

Of course some finish the text and some do not. One option is to tell the students to draw a line at the place they are at when the time we set is up.


Well, for one thing, this will tell us to what extent we are providing enough time. Also, if we ask the students to re-read the passage in the same amount of time they can see whether the second time they took more or less time.

But more importantly I think having students mark the place they read up to reminds us that reading in a set amount of time is not necessarily helpful. In fact, it can be harmful.

Again, why?

Focus on speed often leads to mis-reading. But students rarely realize this unless they do read and look up and record what they say aloud after they read a phrase silently.
I show in some videos available through Small changes that students miss out many words that show they have misunderstood the text completely.

Of course when students take standardized tests they have to finish the readings in a set period of time. This is very, very unfortunate because it makes reading into a ritual rather than into an experience that can provide pleasure.

Ditto for having the students read quickly in class.

I gave the Iowa reading test to scores of English teachers in French speaking Africa and allowed the time prescribed by those who produced the standardized test. The average reading level was at the second grade of a US primary school with native speakers of English.

A few weeks later I gave the test again and allowed the teachers to take as long as they wanted to complete reading and answering the multiple choice questions.
Their average reading level was around the seventh grade of a US primary school with native speakers of English.

When I watch young people and in fact all age groups eat I notice that many eat very quickly. Some chew a mouthful in as few as 5 seconds. Nutritionists and those who advise people who have some stomach trouble suggest 20 to 30 bites for each mouthful.

Why eat and read fast? Why not savor the tastes and the content of what we read? Of course reading the banal texts in most standardized tests rather than fiction, poems or songs is perhaps a reason to read quickly. Get past the misery.

“There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away nor any coursers like a page of prancing Poetry.” Emily Dickinson

Let’s relish our food and texts that we can connect with emotionally and savor slowly.


When I wrote Breaking Rules, my focus is how we out of consciousness do many things as we teach. I urged teachers to record a few minutes of their interactions and then analyze them.

I recently read a report in The New Yorker about special ed students who teachers said broke rules. It seems that some autistic students find wearing shoes distressing. When these students took off their shoes in class, teachers demanded they put them back on. Those that did not were the taken to a room and told to sit at a desk facing a blank wall and meditate for 30 minutes about following the rules.

Of course during this time the students received no instruction. And day after day the students continued to remove their shoes.


In Japan as many know, students remove their shoes when they enter their schools.


Different rules in different places but why not accept that some autistic students get distressed when they have their shoes on?


In many NYC schools, students wear hats as they walk from one class to another during breaks. The rule is that students should not wear hats as they show disrespect. So teachers during the time when students walk from class to class during their breaks are shouted at: Take off your hat! Show respect” Of course the shouting does not show respect to the students.

I went to a bar mitzvah on a weekend after I had visited many schools where teachers were shouting at students to remove their hats to show respect. I had to put a scull cap on to enter the Temple to show respect.

These incidents–keep your shoes on, take your hats off–revealed to me a totally different idea of breaking rules!

In another recent article in The New Yorker, a former CIA agent became a policeman. He was taught that compliance with commands is the number one priority for the police. “Get out of your care and put your arms on the top of the car. Stop walking and lie on the ground.” If people to not follow the commands they are handcuffed or pushed or hit with a baton.

Late at night, are we able to understand what others shout at us? What if our language is different from those who are shouting?


These rules I think are more dangerous than the ones we follow out of consciousness in our classrooms. But if they are broken the consequences are more dire.

I advocate recording in classrooms and now out of classrooms. Many police are now equipped with digital video recorders to show what they say and do.


In classrooms what we do is not a matter of life or death but in the streets it is.


So new understandings of rules!


All the best.





Standardized testing

Fellow explorers,

I just finished a book titled The tyranny of metrics which not only shows how detrimental standardized tests are but also how detrimental crime statistics and hospital measurements are.  A must read!




Help me with a title please.

Dear fellow explorers,

I have a few names for the blog.

The important thing is not to stop questioning, Albert Einstein.

Enjoy, enjoy.

You can always do it. . . if

We can do more than we think!

Teaching is. . . learning is. . .

Conversations with John.

Teaching as discovery.

I welcome others.


John F. Fanselow