Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Does Adrenaline Help Learning? The Importance of Colors and Snakes in the Classroom

A Visual and Active Method of Teaching

Steve McCrea

Recommended: a visual approach to pronunciation

Hello. I'm a teacher of English as a second language. I also teach teenagers how to improve their score on the SAT, a college entrance exam. I think about "How do we make math and vocabulary come alive for these students?" As teachers, we need to make this stuff more appealing to more students because we need more engineers and consumers who understand basic physical and chemical laws.

Perhaps you have heard about these topics:
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (sometimes the first impression is right and our intellectual analysis overwhelms the intuition, leading us to negative situations)

A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink and Free Agent Nation. The ideas are that we need more "right-brain" thinking (which looks at the whole situation) and less focus on efficiency (to the exclusion of beautify). Since more people will be working for themselves, free agents need training on how to come together to work on projects (in the Hollywood movie making process). Projects will take place, not jobs. People will deliver services and then leave. Are we preparing our students for the uncertain, fastchanging workplace that demands more than a solid resume and good academic scores? Are we instilling the discipline of self-teaching (most people will have to train for at least five different careers) and flexible networking skills?

We know that there are many ways of learning Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligences

Perhaps you have heard that it is a good idea to learn in a small school (see Dennis Littky's book The Big Picture: Education is Everybody's Business and the initiative by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to subdivide large schools, The issues are about where students learn, how they learn and what they should be learning. Who should teach them? Dennis Littky says, "Mentors."

The recommends slightly older peers. Now let's put more information on top of this long list of recommendations: According to recent studies, we need to bring more color, action and positive stress into the classroom. Did you hear about the adrenaline experiment? What role does excitement play in helping us remember new information?

Here's a quote from a 60 Minutes report
Adrenaline makes memories. How can we use this information?
The story begins with some surprising discoveries about memory. It turns out our memories are sort of like Jello – they take time to solidify in our brains. And while they're setting, it's possible to make them stronger or weaker. It all depends on the stress hormone adrenaline. The man who discovered this is James McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine. McGaugh studies memory in rats, and he invited Stahl to watch the making of a rat memory -- in this case, how a rat who's never been in this tank of water before learns how to find a clear plastic platform just below the surface. "He'll swim around randomly," McGaugh explains. The rat cannot see the platform, since his eyes are on the top of his head. The rat will swim around the edge for a long time, until eventually he ventures out and by chance bumps into the platform. The next day, he'll find the platform a little bit faster.

But another rat, who had learned where the platform was the day prior, and then received a shot of adrenaline immediately afterwards, today swam instantly to the platform. Adrenaline actually made this rat's brain remember better, and McGaugh believes the same thing happens in people. "Suppose I said to you, 'You know, I've watched your programs a lot over the years, and although it pains me to have to tell you this, I think you're one of worst people I've ever seen on … now don't take it, don't take it personally,'" McGaugh says.

"So, my stress system would go into overdrive, no question," Stahl says. "Even with my telling you that it's not true, there's nothing to keep you from blushing, from feeling warm all over," McGaugh points out. "That's the adrenaline. And I dare say that you're gonna remember my having said that long after you've forgotten the other details of our discussion here. I guarantee it."

McGaugh says that's why we remember important and emotional events in our lives more than regular day-to-day experiences.

AH! Now I know how to get someone to REALLY learn grammar! We need snakes, vampires and ghosts in the classroom.

Suggested Materials
I have collected these procedures because I am sometimes asked to teach in a new school as a substitute. The director of studies is often surprised at the amount of stuff that I bring into a classroom. Here is a typical list:

Stuffed animals
Large picture books (dogs, places to visit, food, profiles of countries, atlas, different types of atlases),
comic books,
DVDs and CDs showing students expressing a variety of opinions
Pronunciation CDs
Video camera,
Small rewards (bouncing balls sold ten for $2, pens with web site addresses, particular and
Colored papers,
colored pens,
post-it notes,
rulers (yard stick)
glue and tape to put papers on the walls,
wide-tipped markers.

Phew. And then the director of studies wonders why I request a closet or corner to leave this stuff so that I don't have to carry it back to my car at the end of the day.

This pamphlet is a draft,, a work in progress, but it is urgently needed as a manifesto for parents and students who have learning differences. If your kid needs more stimulation in class, here's one way to build support for the idea that schools need a variety of ways of teaching and some of those methods of teaching require more space for storing materials that can be useful.

A more radical notion is "If a teacher does not employ things to help the visual learner and the student who needs higher stimulation, should that teacher go through training?" What is the point of going to workshops about multiple ways of learning if the teacher does not change the method of delivery? If a teacher refuses to bring a video camera into the classroom, is it possible to allow students to make videotapes of segments of class? What are the rights of students who have an ability for learning through later listening?

I am not an attorney, so I will leave these matters to better-informed analysts. As a teacher in the front line, where I deliver lessons to students, I have observed that the focus is often on "Did the teacher present the information clearly?" (show me your lesson plan) when in reality, the focus should be on the student. Did the teacher give each student an opportunity to express or perform his understanding of the material? The teacher can lecture beautifully and even pass out a DVD to every student, but the visual and active method requires the teacher to listen to each student perform their understanding of the process. This is why at least every 9 weeks in the Met Center, an innovative school in Providence, Rhode Island, every student gives a formal presentation that is video recorded. The student can analyze the performance, the teacher can see what has been omitted and the administrator can evaluate both student and teacher. Stand up presentations are used so that students who dislike writing can use a larger vocabulary.

I tested this. I asked several boys to write a page about their recent vacation. Most didn't cover half a page. But when I asked them to tell me about their vacation, I had a hard time stopping them. The presentations were sequential and well-organized while many of the written presentations jumped from topic to topic without smooth transitions. If you teach young boys, consider introducing video testing as an alternative or supplement to the typical written essay.

I will conclude this presentation with a list of principles that I’ve compiled to attempt to inform a (choose one) flustered, annoyed, perplexed director of studies: "Why is this room so messy? Why do you need this stuff in here? Why can't you teach without all these things?" In short, I could read the question in his eyes, "Why can't you be like the other teachers?" (Yes, there are usually complaints from some students who claim that the materials make the classroom look like a children's play room.)

The following principles are presented in an effort to build an army of colleagues. I want to be part of the majority who use visual and active techniques. I want to hand out a brochure to parents that persuades and wins over new supporters of this method. If you have additional points or suggestions on how I can reformat this presentation, let me know.

What would Cary say?
A workshop for Experienced ESOL Teachers
When I first taught English for speakers of other languages, I believed that the purpose of my presence in the classroom was to speak a lot (slowly) so that students would catch on to what I was saying and build vocabulary the way a two-year-old picks up words by watching dad clean the house. Oops. After watching Cary Elcome and after taking the RSA CELTA course, I learned what we all know -- the language learning takes place inside the student, not in the classroom. Here are some tips that I think Cary would tell you if he were here and if he weren't modest.

1. Share your techniques. Cary was generous to me and often asked if I'd like to sit in and participate in a private lesson or in an afternoon class so I could pick up tips from him and he could watch me and pick up tips.

2. Video record your lessons at least twice a year and analyze your method. Cary used to record the audio of his lessons and hand out the cassette to students who wanted a dictation. 3. Call them anything except students. Participants, learners and colleagues were his favorite terms. "A student is so clearly beneath a teacher that some students never get over the humiliation."

4. Give them errors. Let the learners find the solution. Cary loves gapfills (fill in the blank) and he often l__ves o__t v_wels when he wr_tes w_rds on the wh__teb___rd (leaves out vowels when he writes on the whiteboard).

5. Develop incurable chronic laryngitis. TTT. I can't be said enough. Keep Teacher Talking Time to the minimum.

6. Put a bunch of materials together. Cary gives away scads of photocopies. I think he knocked down two entire forests in Washington State to supply his materials to his learners. And these are HIS materials, all created using big and small fonts.

7. Go visual. Cary LOVES visual techniques. He puts a photo on every worksheet. He brings in photos from his latest travel and asks students to write questions to go with each photo.

8. Bring the NY Times into the classroom. Even with beginners. He believes that students who are advanced have less opportunity to learn than beginners and so all students should be exposed to real English found in newspapers, free (New Times and City Link) as well as the major papers on the Internet.

9. Stay current with the learners. Find out about their music. Use their lyrics in the classroom.

10. Cross-pollinate. When possible, send a student from your class into Cary's class. That student will be peppered with questions by the class. Then Cary will send a student from his class and they will pepper another student. Or take half or your class and send them to Cary and he'll send half of his class and send them to you. "It's great, he says, "That's facilitating!" He believes in monitoring by walking around with pen and paper and requiring pairs to make a written record of some of the topics that they discussed.

11. Make use of the people in the room. Of course ask learners to read the instructions in the book or to begin the day with "What's the news in your country?" Cary looks up articles so that the busy learner (who hasn't had time to find a juicy piece of news) can say something interesting, perhaps about the growing and persistent market for manatee meat in Venezuela.

12. Make use of the people in the school. He annoys administrative staff by asking students to go out and get a stapler (even though he has a stapler in the room).

13. Use the people in the community. Cary used to develop relationships and ask students, "What's the name of the doorman?" or receptionist or the bus driver.

14. Give away materials. Did we mention this? Do it again. "We have no idea how much our teaching is done outside the classroom. If we can write something about ourselves, maybe an autobiography of two pages, the students who want to can read it and come back with questions. If you went Venice, talk about it. The Italians will have something to talk with you about during the break time."

15. Break time is learning time. Cary arrived early, stayed late, ate meals with students, and met them at least once a week for an evening of talk on Las Olas Blvd, and never spent break time in the teacher's room. He was always interacting with students. "When they are OUTSIDE the class, that's when the real mistakes emerge," he believes.

16. Keep in touch. Cary was an early adopter of email but he was slow to take on the role of technology guru. He had a laptop but didn't know how to make web sites or make a network. He used it to write lessons on his computer and he was an avid explorer of the Internet.

He wasn't afraid to ask for directions. Unlike a typical guy, he would start by saying he knew very little about something and send a lot of emails to get information. In other words, he is the perfect mentor for people who are afraid of some aspect of technology. He still gets frustrated with the lack of communication between printer and CPU and he was my role model for bringing technology into the classroom. He might not understand every aspect of it, but he just knew that someone in the room or in the school would help figure out how to use the darn thing.

I write some of this section in the past tense because Cary is "no longer with us." He's in Asia. Sometimes he feels "gone" and when asked to give training to other teachers, I just think, "What would Cary say?" and he's alive for me again. We're having a hard time meshing our lives over Skype because he's out the door at 8 a.m. (7 p.m. the previous day for me) and when he is ready to talk at 5 p.m., it's 4 a.m. for me! I've learned about right/left, male/female brain tendencies and the role of adrenaline in the formation of memories -- all since I met Cary. However, his basic training help me to daily deal with challenging situations -- not the new bells, whistles, laptops and CDs. It's still nuts and bolts, in this ESOL industry, and it's still people to people. Cary is a good mentor and hi advice is timeless. The point of this presentation is to encourage you to find your Cary or to contact him yourself. Set up an email pen pal (email pal?) exchange of correspondence. Ask your students to write to his students. He's currently in Japan:

Composed by Steve McCrea, Eternally grateful acolyte of the School of Elcome.


If I am pressed to state the visual and active method in a paragraph, I say the following:
I have learned my method from my students. I do not hold important degrees, like university professors. I am sure that when I give my presentations, people with master's degrees in ESOL will recognize the methods and they will be able to explain why the method works. I can not explain much about the theory behind the method, but I respond to my students' needs.

1. For pronunciation, my students don't want to learn a special alphabet (IPA), so let's teach "It Sounds Like." is an organized method to use the phonic method by graphing the sound. It is "visual listening."

2. For tests, many students prefer to make a video. "I don't like to write" or "I can't spell very well" -- so make an audio recording using a digital camera. The camera does not need to point at the student.

3. Students learn most quickly when they are laughing and when they are surprised. (See the October 31, 2004 article about novelty).

4. Students learn the things that they want to learn. If they are interested...they will remember more. So why not let students choose their subjects?

5. Let's create projects and homework that are REAL, not just paperwork. Let's make websites and blogs and write emails -- let's build bridges. Let's make videos and send the news to other people. (Source: Dennis Littky)

6. We know that some people learn by listening to audio recordings and others learn by watching videos, so the teacher should have support from administration to provide CDs and videos to students. (But if there is no support, the teacher can recommend videos on the internet!)

That is the central message. I offer a workshop because most teachers don't believe these 6 points or they don't believe that they have the power in themselves to use this system. Thank you for listening.

In a column called Science Watch (Sun Sentinel Oct 31, 2004), Sandra Blackeslee (NY Times syndicate) reported that "anything that is novel grabs the brain's attention system by tapping directly into reward pathways in the brain." Marketing organizations are interested in this technology.
"Being able to see how the brain responds to novelty and makes decisions is potentially a huge step forward for marketers," according to Tim McParlin, who works for Lieberman Research Worldwide in Los Angeles (quoted in the article).



See also the document (where I pulled this blog entry)


The photos that appear in the original document (see come from Suzy Lima's class in Curitiba, Brazil. She was looking for a way to make her ESOL class more vibrant, and I suggested an activity that I use (based on the insights presented by Dennis Littky in The Big Picture) make it personal. Ask the students to perform their understanding. I'm a lazy author (I have difficulty matching captions to photos), so I asked that the photos include the caption, which is why the students are holding pieces of paper. Some captions are in Portuguese to give the reader a translation of the English and practice in another language. Go ahead, learn something new and keep the brain active and young. Many thanks to the students of Suzy Lima. I encourage you, dear reader, to send an email message to and ask your students to send letters to Suzy so she can find one of her 789 students to create penpal correspondence.

This is a flat world, as Thomas Friedman says, and we need to have more than scholastic success to prepare for competing in a global economy. See Dan Pink's arguments about design. In other words, there are five doors for success (LASSIE): Languages, Academics, Social Skills, Inherited opportunities and Experience. We teachers can't change what our students inherit and we know that achievement in school is not the only door for success in many students' lives (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other entrepreneurs dropped out of school to put their ideas to work). Let's encourage our students (and model the behavior, too) for learning more languages, finding new experiences, and developing social skills. Students who have limited inherited opportunities or who do poorly at traditional schools are possibly the salvation of our economy with their divergent thinking and creative out-of-the-box approaches to problems. Using a Visual and Active method of teaching with narratives for grading and testing by exhibition (following the model of the Met Center in Providence, Rhode Island) we can make our schools into places of exploration.

In case you skipped the article and you are reading the end of the article, here is the main issue: What do these two news stories bring to the ESOL industry (and teachers in general)? We can force the brain awake more often with bright colors and change of pace (have you stood on the furniture lately?) and then you can scare the student to help them remember the moment -- we hope that the student remembers the grammar or vocabulary and not the fact that you introduced lifelike spiders into the classroom.

List of Web Sites (graphs that show the stressed syllables)
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Littky's school Littky's organization and consulting firm
If you have other suggestions about how to use stuffed animals (novelty) and snakes (an adrenaline rush), please send them to me at or I'm on MSN and Skype SteveEnglishTeacher and I welcome your contact, questions and suggestions.

In Appreciation: To the teachers and administrators who have asked, "Why do you need all of these things? This classroom looks cluttered and disorganized" -- thank you. Your questions and comments have spurred me to jot down these thoughts.


  1. Thank you for shared information

    The RSA Certification, which stands for Responsible Service of Alcohol is a certification that is required by law to be held by all full time and part time staff that work on a licensed premises in Australia. This includes job positions such as bar staff, security staff, waiters and door and reception staff.

    RSA Certificate

  2. RSA in the world of English language teachers is Royal Society of Arts, the coordinators of the CELTA Certificate for English Language Teaching to Adults. I'm leaving the comment up by Roger Lee because I'm sure there are some students (and teachers?) who could be interested in getting this additional RSA. Let's pick up some pocket money while on vacation in Brisbane.