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A Tried Method: Using Psychology to Get to Students

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A Tried Method: Using Psychology to Get to Students

Mar 13, 2012By Michael Robinson,  

For the great many of us out there who are English teachers, we all face the common problem each day of figuring out how to reach our students. Some students respond quite well, and others require you to cram the lesson down their throats in order to get them to participate. It’s one of our daily challenges, and the ability to transfer ideas from your head into theirs is one of the key qualities of a good teacher.

A Tried Method: Using Psychology to Get to Students

There are a few mechanisms that the brain does which we might call “learning”. Chinese students must rely on one mechanism exclusively in order to pass the high pressure, high importance examinations: memorization. Anyone who has taught has seen the reflex behaviour of Chinese students when they walk into the room: books open, pens out, ready to snap up as much vocabulary words as they can.

Then the foreign teacher, who has most likely not been raised in an environment that requires unending repetition of vocabulary, starts asking questions, resulting in numerous blank, confused, anxious stares. The body language and facial expressions of these students say one thing: “You are not sticking to the script and it is scary, please give us vocabulary words and sentences to repeat”.

Here is one possible solution to this problem.

The Ben Franklin Effect

The story goes that Ben Franklin was a generally likeable person with opinions that most people could get behind…with the exception of one particularly fierce and unforgiving rival. After this rival took a sharp jab at Franklin (intellectually and socially of course), the young Ben Franklin decided enough was enough. He was determined to make this adversary his friend, not by kowtowing and flattery, but with the kind of sheer skill that should come from the future founder of a country.

Knowing his opponent was an avid book lover with an extensive book collection, Ben actually went to his adversary and asked him for a favour—specifically to borrow a very rare book from the rival’s extensive library. Shocked that the man who he had spent many days degrading would ask him for help, he actually gave Ben Franklin the tome—which was eventually sent back with Mr. Franklin’s warmest thanks. The two remained best of friends for the rest of their lives.

Ben, being the clever chap that he was, knew about the incredible power of cognitive dissonance—the discomfort that comes from holding two competing beliefs at the same time. This adversary had spent a great amount of time and energy attacking and lambasting him on every conceivable subject, which by normal logic would make him an irreconcilable enemy. However, Ben did the exact opposite and treated this enemy as a friend. This created a psychological conflict:

My enemy just asked me for a favourà enemies do not ask their opponents for favours à this person is my friend

Human beings like their psychological world to be neat, orderly, and most importantly, without conflict. When two bits of knowledge seem to cancel each other out, a person experiences tension and uncertainty about what is true—an uncomfortable experience to say the least. This experience—cognitive dissonance—gives us the mechanisms for which old, outdated information can be replaced with new, factual information. Wait a minute…old, worn out information replaced with new? Enter language learning in China!

Using cognitive dissonance to reach your students

Now rote memorization does have its place too—times tables would be a monumental pain without them, and basic maths would become nigh impossible. However, when it comes to learning and speaking another language, the power of cognitive dissonance cannot be matched. The onus of energy moves from the teacher onto the student, who on accepting that two competing ideas are true, will be hanging on every word in order to ensure that the ideas in their head work in harmony once again.

Using this power is much easier than you might think:

  1. Find your students’ basic assumptions

    We all have some things we assume about life simply because nobody has shown us reason to believe otherwise. You are there to teach English, so they have already accepted that what you will tell them is correct—therefore there is no energy or effort put into defending their English skills. However the purpose of using cognitive dissonance is not simply to teach—but to build a rapport that will allow future lessons to be accepted eagerly. These assumptions are the target for your psychological smart-bomb.

  2. Look for common ground

    Everyone in some way has common ground with another person. Even if you are from a completely different culture or background from your students, it is possible to find something that you can identify with. Finding common ground, like Ben Franklin’s mutual love of books, provides the connection that you need to reach them. The kicker here is that you must desire to find common ground with your students; arrogance will be seen as a threat and the plan will backfire.

  3. Present a situation that runs contrary to their basic assumptions, while supporting the common ground

Once a student has accepted that you both have something in common, this part becomes incredibly easy. Simply show them that you, a person who is like them, have a different experience or point of view that you would like to share with them. An example would be to share a personal story (real or fictional) that shows you have an emotional investment in their well-being, and do it in a fashion that your students will accept. Your students will see that you, a person who is similar to them, is trying to connect with them on a level that most teachers will not.  From this, any previous ideas they had about you will conflict with the new information they have been given—and the process of cognitive dissonance begins.

Turning a boring lesson around

It happens every so often that I am given a lesson plan on energy and natural resources to teach. This lesson is so incredibly dull and uninspired that it often puts my students to sleep if I stick to it exactly, especially if my students are young (as they often are). Normally I heavily “modify” this particular plan as to fit the needs of my students. However on one particular day, my supervisor was especially keen on ensuring that I stuck exactly to the subject matter. Upon walking into the classroom, I saw to my dismay that my students were all in the throes of middle school, and upon beginning the class showed absolutely no interest in the subject matter at all.  It would take some extra effort to convince them this was important.


First I asked them a series of boring questions about energy, the kind they were already prepared for. These were followed by a very personal and direct question, for which they were unprepared: “Do you care about this lesson?”

Shocked, the students answered truthfully with various polite versions of “No”.

“I understand,” I said, and explained this was because energy simply came to them and did not need to be thought about, so long as the lights work and the water is hot. To this they agreed. We had reached a mutual understanding and the breaking of their ideas could begin.

I thereafter gave the most graphic descriptions of where their energy comes from. I described, sparing no detail, of my visit to a McDonald’s beef factory and the plight of a friend who comes from an oil producing nation in Africa. These are not pretty stories—they are stories of power, pain, and wealth beyond our most fantastic imaginations—and the very human cost of things that we take for granted. My students, who formerly were sleeping and uninterested, were now glued to their seats and asking a whole slew of questions that they could not be bothered with even an hour prior. Their old idea, “energy does not relate to me”, was no longer relevant due to the information relayed onto them—that their food and the stuff that powers their precious cell phones and QQ comes with a terrible and carefully hidden cost.  The power of cognitive dissonance has succeeded once again.

Simple, powerful, and used incessantly throughout time, cognitive dissonance is the difference between a teacher and a mentor. Now that you know a little bit about it, for those of you that choose to try, I hope that you will find only success in your quest to be a better teacher.

Or become the founding father of a new country—whichever works for you.



Hi, I am Coach Razan Kilani. I am certified by the International Coach Federation as a PCC. I have coached over 35 clients for over 1500 hours. I love my work! It's been such an honor for me to share my clients' lives, troubles, achievements and precious moments. Together, we nurtured their paths and mine towards success and happiness. My job interprets who I am and very much enables me to fulfill my innermost values in life, such as giving, understanding, respecting, caring and going on perseveringly. I established Wisdom Within Consultancy over 6 years ago, and has catered to wide ranges of my clients, of all ages, circumstances, and challenges. At Wisdom Within Consultancy, we offer Emotional Intelligence highly Certified Coaching to individuals and groups, comprising all ages and different fields of work. We coach business groups, yet we do focus on the person interacting in the different aspects of his or her life (parenting, relationship and work). Coach Razan empowers you to achieve goals you have always wanted to achieve, and to overcome obstacles that are hindering your progress in life and work. With over 6 years of international experience, I would love to support you to find your inner voice, and live the life you wish to live, in order to be happy, successful and content. Contact me on and begin your life changing journey! If you feel stuck in any way, then Wisdom Within Coaching can help you. Low self-confidence, work-life balance, emotional intelligence, social anxiety, weight loss, reducing your social and emotional anxiety and stress, improving your or your employees' performance, finding time to meditate or to spend time with your loved ones and if you need help in realizing your dream goals, get the work you want, etc. then please contact us on We can help you get unstuck and move toward the life you really want to live from now on. Join us!

One thought on “A Tried Method: Using Psychology to Get to Students

  1. An excellent article. As a language teacher I am fortunate to be able to basically teach class after class about the students… and in most cases that is the most fascinating subject they can imagine. Then there is the minority of youngsters who have nothing to say about themselves. This is sad, but we can give them the opportunity to take that first step.

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