Do you have Tonys in your Classes?

I started week 2 of the Neuroscience EVO 2013 session by watching the video of Tony. First, I would like to thank Mary Hillis for her narration to the story and Cleide Frazão for drawing these amazing images. This story is taken from a book by James E. Zull titled “The Art of Changing the Brain“. Let’s watch this video or read the excerpt below and then discuss what is behind Tony’s problem.


To go in depth, I chose to explore more about Emotion and Learning to explain why Tony behaves in this way. Fortunately, I found a free copy of Zull’s book online. I liked his personal and exemplified style of writing. By the end of chapter 4, Zull discussed all about Tony’s problem. He talked about the role of amygdala (To know more about this part of our brain, please read this article) and how Tony regained his brain balance.


This analysis seems convincing to me because this session helps me to know more about how our students’ brains work. However, imagine that other teachers have Tony in their classrooms. Do they interpret this situation the same way? I think that not all the teachers know about Neuroscience field, but at least they have some experiences with such situations. They can feel there is a struggle through the body language of Tony as Zull described “Every part of his body said, “I don’t care!”. I admit that each semester I meet some of students like Tony. Their facial expressions and postures say that we don’t care about the English course. I don’t know what is going on in their brains and I don’t even spend more time struggling with them. All what I do is asking them to talk about their past experiences with the English subject and writing about their expectations with me. It is the story of Tony from his own point of view as Patricia said in her comment. Trying to know students’ goals solves part of the problem and reading their responses helps me a lot to identify their motivation to learn. This information about my students is the first step towards finding a suitable solution. 

The second step is to motivate students and get them involved in my classes. How can I do that? You know there are TWO types of motivation; intrinsic and extrinsic. According to many researchers, intrinsic motivation helps students to learn better. I agree but this doesn’t work with my EFL students. They learn the English language just for testing. In my classes, I start with the extrinsic motivation, e.g., giving them extra points, praise, gifts … etc. I also try to involve some of the Gamification features. For example, I ask students to work in groups to solve a problem and at the end of the lesson, I announce the best group, solution or the most active members. I can also draw some smiley faces that indicate whether their answers are correct or not. I exhibit all these resources of extrinsic motivation on the whiteboard so all students have instant feedback and rewards to their behaviors. At the same time, I provide students with a  safe environment where they can make mistakes and correct themselves. Step by step, students will become a little bit intrinsically motivated and form other goals like “I want to be like a native speaker”, “I like to watch American films without looking at the subtitles”, “I want to speak English to express my ideas fluently” instead of “I want to learn English to get high marks”. This means that we can use extrinsic motivation as a starting point. Zull  (2002: 54) finds these extrinsic rewards so valuable because “they can get a learner started on something and can also sustain a learner at times of pressure and difficulty.” I just start from what students expect to see from me to what I expect to see from them at the end. 

This is what I can do if I have some Tonys in my classes. What about you? What can you do to involve them?

Resources Used:

  1. The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull (2002).
  2. Where is Amygdala?
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14 thoughts on “Do you have Tonys in your Classes?

  1. thanks, Azhar, for such a comprehensive post about our "Tonys" in the classroom. We all have challenging students. What we need to know is how to tap into our and their emotional brains to make the classroom an enjoyable learning space.

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  2. Hi, Azhar! I totally agree with you on the matter of extrinsic motivation being the first step to intrinsic. I watched quite a number of kids who, at first encouraged by parents, marks and rewards soon got the taste of it and develop the interest that comes from inside. But sometimes kids get used to rewards from outside and demand to have more. I wonder what can be done in this respect.

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  3. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs – we need to have our basic needs met and feel comfortable with our environment before we can learn. Our emotions do affect our learning (and teaching). Good food for thought. I have a Tony in my class who is just coming out of his shell this year – exciting to watch.

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  4. Great post Azhar! I too think we need to try to find out what motivates our students, what they are interested in, so that they can learn better. Zull says this may be very difficult because most often the students themselves don't even know what they want or are interested in. But we can try our best!!

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  5. Dear Carla,Thanks so much for dropping by. You made a great point. The Key is to understand our students' emotions first.This will help us to create an enjoyable learning space based on understanding and matching needs.Really, I enjoy your session!

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  6. Dear Svetlana,Thanks so much for your comment. Really, I enjoyed your blog post about week 2. You talked about surprising new pieces of information. You also asked very insightful question here about those students who stick to such extrinsic rewards. I didn't meet them in my classes. Let's research about this and go back to start our discussion.Thank so much for opening new doors of researching and discussion!Best Regards!

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  7. Dear Lori,Thanks so much for passing by. This post is a reflection on another course I'm taking. It is about Neuroscience in Education. It is a fabulous experience which helps us as teachers to link our practices to what Neuroscience field says about brain. If you want to know more about this session, go to this link (http://hottopicselt.pbworks.com/) and register for a great experience to be ready to your new Tony this year.

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  8. Dear Sarah,I agree with Zull that students don't know what they want. As teenagers, their wants are also changeable. However, as you said, we have to try to be more close and open a door for asking and giving advice to those students. They really need a person to talk with about their inside. I will be so happy if I am this person.Thanks so much for passing by!All the best!

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  9. Dear Mary,Thanks again for narrating this story. This also makes me think about how students need a variety when receiving information. For me, I prefer to watch a video to read an article about a topic. Great idea!All the best!

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  10. Dear Maja,It is a great honor to have you one of my readers. I spent a lot of time to find an attractive video about amygdala, but I didn't. I love to learn via videos. I hope the article would be useful for others. I'm looking forward to learning from and with you!All the best!

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  11. A good find, the rest of Zull's book. AS you say those pages quite clearly explain the reasons for Tony's decisions. I have often found that peer pressure can have an effect on students behaviour/attitude. Especially if the peer is of the opposite sex!

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  12. Dear Bob,You made a great point. I prefer teaching boys and girls in the same class. This creates competition and more attention to every behavior they act. I love Zull's book so much. It is very easy to follow. It is like a story that is full of examples and experiences.All the best!

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