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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #9 Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom




Blonde woman smiling in college classContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at number nine of the 10 Commandments: Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

This is the latest of the blogs dealing with the vexed matter of motivation. A recap: I’ve been musing on the 10 Commandments of Motivation as categorised by two top Hungarians, Zoltan Dornyei and Kata Czizer, and wondering what their practical ramifications might be. In some senses, I’ve left the most interesting two till last. One is the imperative to create a pleasant relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. This is about the physical properties of the classroom, by the way, and not so much about the human relationships inside it – though one way of looking at it is to think about how the classroom atmosphere can facilitate good relationships and an atmosphere conducive to learning.

I’m loath to provide any recipes here as so much depends on the context you’re working in and, for example, the physical condition of a classroom in a state university in my part of post-communist Europe is very different from the state-of-the-art hi-tech private schools students might be in. But atmospheres can always be better and there is a framework to think about them provided by the senses. Why? Well, we know enough from research to have, to say the least, strong suspicions that brains do not thrive in environments with a narrow range of stimuli. In plainer English, poorly kept classrooms inhibit learning. I should say here I’m relying on one of my favourite books on this area – it’s Using Brainpower in the Classroom: 5 Steps to Accelerate Learning by Steve Garnett, and it says some hugely useful things about the classroom environment.

One place to start is with the display. I’m a great believer in displaying students’ work, even that of adults (as long as of course that it’s not kept on the wall too long). It’s not just about self-esteem, though seeing your work displayed is likely to increase that. There are also important learning points here. Writing should always be for an audience, and displaying writing gives any bit of work a wider audience than just the teacher. The posters that come with English File can be enormously useful too. If they are legible from anywhere in the room and positioned at eye-level, long term recall of their learning points can be as high as 75%. If we replace these learning displays frequently, then obviously more knowledge can be learnt, almost passively, in this way.

Displays also provide a splash of colour. Now I’m a bit cynical about some of the wackier claims made for colour (red promotes energy, orange makes us happy and confident, yellow boosts self-esteem, green is about peace and harmony, blue is mentally relaxing, indigo is food for the imagination, while violet leads us all to contemplate creativity) – but that maybe comes with the territory of being grumpy and middle-aged, and even I accept that dabs of colour provide necessary stimulus. (I’ve also just returned from a training session done in a room planned by colour therapists which had lots of blues and occasional pinks and it was great…)

The other easy way into sensory stimulation is through the ears. Like the man said, music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak… or in classroom terms it can shape atmospheres. Just giving students control of the music to be played at break time is one easy way of changing dynamics. Some claims about the effect of music go further– there are those who have it that listening to Mozart, for example, will raise the IQ, create fertile brains and promote creativity. Even if you’re sceptical (me! I am!) about this stuff, it still makes sense that baroque music (60 beats per minute…) can create calm, drown out white noise, and if your students are doing writing maybe even promote that sense of relaxed alertness we need to get ideas flowing.

In other spheres (shopping, leisure developments and so on) those who’ve got a commercial interest in altering people’s moods use different smells to do so. Somewhere there may be a teacher who brings in cinnamon-scented incense to create a relaxed atmosphere. But for me, it’s enough to think about what the walls of my classroom look like, and how it sounds.

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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  1. I’ve seen crowded, stuffy classrooms in poor parts of big Asian cities where the students were excited, motivated and so happy to be there. I’ve seen state-of-the-art classrooms in rich Western schools where students yawned and looked bored.

    Now I’m in no way saying that the state of the classroom doesn’t have a role in the motivation of students, but my personal experience suggests that the kind of role it does play is minimal. Ninety percent of the energy and enthusiasm in a classroom comes, in my opinion, from the teacher. It is simple trickle down.

    No matter what colour the room, what posters are on the wall, how well decked out is the classroom… if the teacher is a dud then the class dies.

  2. I love this post, in my country (Indonesia) students always find difficulties when they learn a foreign language since our native language (Indonesian) has simple grammar. this post is very helpful, thank you.

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