The Need to Socialize while Social Isolating: Group Surfing on Virtual Waves

The Need to Socialize while Social Isolating: Group Surfing on Virtual Waves

By: Tim Murphey & Curtis Kelly 

(Ed. note: This starts as a discussion about online teaching between Curtis and Tim, but ends up like a Zoom meeting on paper…well, virtual paper. Jon Kabat-Zinn was right: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”)

Curtis: Hi, Tim. How are you doing during this period of isolation? As for me, I’m teaching all my regular uni classes online, which takes about twice as much work, but I save on transportation time. How about you?

Curtis: Really! I’m using Zoom, too. It is amazing how this rather peripheral piece of software was suddenly thrown to the center of the educational ring. I used it with an American online class last year, so I’m fairly proficient. (I made some mini-manuals for teachers and held some Zoom training sessions. To my surprise, over 60 took part.)

Tim: Curtis, I think you saved me a few times early on this spring with your videos and materials you recommended, and with the online Zooming we did together. I semi-retired last March which means, ironically, I’m teaching part-time at four universities and working nearly twice as much. Each university was asking that I use a different software app originally and I wasted hours going over them all. Finally, I convinced them that Zoom was the best and easiest and so I am using it, in conjunction with other things, Google Drive, regular emails, etc.

Curtis: Four universities with different apps; learning one is hard enough, but a whole slew of them? I suppose that is why most schools tell teachers what apps to use, so that the students don’t get overloaded with a bunch of different ones. By the way, I’ve noticed all my colleagues think online classes aren’t as good as face to face classes. I not sure I agree. I like what Jal Mehta has to say in this article:

“At a fundamental level, we need to begin by recognizing that learning at home is just a different proposition than learning at school. We should not be trying to ‘implement’ school learning at home. Rather, we should be taking advantage of our new circumstances, and draw on the strengths that come with learning at home.”

But what do you think?

Tim: I have done two weeks, mainly using Zoom, and I like it pretty much. I think I am seeing some advantages over conventional classrooms. My strategy has been to get the students to view videos and read docs before the class and then let them discuss them in breakout rooms, partly because I was afraid of doing screen shares at first. But now I am getting used to these Zoom functions. Also, old fashioned Tim is getting students just to email me their notes and stories after class, rather than upload them into the school’s LMS (learning management system). And those seem to be perfect moments for teacher-student, one-on-one interventions if there are misunderstandings or specific needs.

Curtis: Zoom has some problems, but the breakout rooms are great, I agree. We often forget that learners in their teens and early twenties have this driving need to socialize. Since lockdown and self-isolation have taken socializing opportunities away from them, that makes the need stronger. I can see their joy when I put them in breakout rooms with other students, students they usually don’t know, who they can interact and make friends with. I once did a survey asking college women why they came to school. Every single one of them wrote that the primary reason was “to meet my friends!” So, in a way, we are providing some other “service” than just English instruction. This intrigues me.

"We often forget that learners in their teens and early twenties have this driving need to socialize."
Curtis Kelly
TT Author

Tim: You are absolutely right, Curtis… In fact…

Curtis: Wait! Before we go on to something else. I really need your ideas. You are an expert in learner agency and psychology. How does this need to socialize fit into the larger theory? I gotta know!

Tim: Okay, settle down. I know you are excited, but I was just about to get into that. Their need to socialize has to do with something the Lifespan and Developmental psychologists call “Moral development,” a term coined by Kohlberg.

Curtis: Moral Development? You mean becoming religious? Not my thing.

Tim: No, not religion. It is a part of an increasing need, a primary need in fact, for teens and early twentiers to develop their own code of ethics, figuring out what is right or wrong themselves, a moral code that was previously prescribed by their families and society at large. Taking control of their own rudder is part of their genetic need to develop the autonomy and agency they need to sail away from that safe port of family. This search for autonomy parallels Seligman’s PERMA (2018) and Victor Frankl’s (1946) search for “meaning” as well.

Curtis: Yeah, that makes sense. Those young folks are building themselves so that they can break away. That explains why talking to friends and meeting other youth is so important for them. They share stories and talk about the things they love and hate, what they want to do someday, how they are entering the adult world (which often involves alcohol or sex) and that sharing helps them forge their own identities.

Tim: Exactly, moral development. I think Western observers sometimes miss this powerful need for independence in Japanese youth, which is obscured by what they see as dependence and groupism, but if you look at what young Japanese read and watch, there is always this theme of being independent from authority and doing right, even if it is done as a group. And I think we can say this need to socialize, is probably universal, but probably stronger in adolescence (which we all know lasts from 10 until you die) because being adult makes less sense when you start to be one. And that is how dialogic pedagogies (Freire, 1970) are so important to facilitate effective relationships (the R in PERMA and a huge part of Self-Determination Theory (Ryan, Patrick, Deci, & Williams, 2008) .

Curtis: Wow, Tim. I think that turns the way we think about online classes on its head. Its role is not just for “teaching” or “information delivery,” as most of my university colleagues see it; it is for social, mental, and moral development. I wonder how many teachers miss that point and are just feeding students videos to write reports on.

Tim: Yes, but don’t be too critical. Most of your colleagues are teaching subject matter courses, like Asian Economics. They don’t have the amazing flexibility we have in teaching English, where language can be a conduit for virtually any topic. And, then too, if the video writing assignment stretches their analytical and critical thinking skills, isn’t that also helping students learn how to navigate the outside world?

Curtis: Yes, indeed, and I know many of them are using Zoom and Microsoft Teams as well. That kind of platform serves the development of autonomy in another way as well. In the traditional classroom, everyone is looking at the teacher, and just seeing the backs of each others’ heads. Those online meeting apps make the classroom circular, with every face, including the teacher’s, looking into every other. Zoom democratizes. Then too, people tend to look at themselves more than at the camera or the others. Maybe that is a part of the democratization too.

Tim: Yes, Zoom democratizes. We can see that with another thing they can do in these online apps: engage in written chats during the lecture, pointing interesting things out to each other and the teacher.

Curtis: Well, Tim, getting back to this huge disruption in our lives and livelihood, everything I’ve seen so far is about how debilitating it is, kind of gloomy. Most of the mails in my online teachers’ mailing group are about problems people have getting things to work right. It was kind of a downer.

Then, just today, the wonderful Gerry Yokota, a cognitive linguist herself, wrote this to our group:

Dear Friends,

Sounds like a few of us have hit some rough bumps this week. May I humbly suggest that we also share some bright spots to cheer each other on? Here’s my bright spot this week.

During their stand up and stretch break, Gerry played “No Pata Pata,” a Covid-19 version of the song “Pata Pata,” which means “Touch Touch” in Xhosa. It’s sung by UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo. Her students really got into it, dancing and twirling their towels.

Tim: What a wonderful idea! How we set the frame makes a huge difference in the attitudes we bring into our jobs…

Curtis: And we know from social contagion theory that we, the teachers, are the most powerful influence on how students perceive the classes. So, let’s follow Gerry’s lead, twirl some towels, and share some of the good stuff we’ve found.

Tim: yes, in fact…

Marc: Excuse me guys. I just heard what you’ve been talking about, and I have got to tell you about this wonderful online app I have fallen in love with: FlipGrid. It fits what you are talking about perfectly, but one advantage it gives is that it allows the interaction to be asynchronous. You set an assignment on this free Microsoft website, such as “introduce yourself,” and students video record themselves directly onto the site, using their cellphone or computer cameras. The interaction comes when students watch each other’s videos and record replies in the same way. Amazing, fun, cute, and what a great way for them to bond!

Curtis: How cool, Marc! Bonding on FlipGrid! Perhaps we have a cognitive bias built into our basic teaching model; we need more socially caring ways to bond.

Tim: In the last six months I have been reading about the biopsychosocial model that was actually first proposed back in the 1960s as a reaction against the overuse of the bio-medical model used by doctors. Apparently, most doctors were trained to believe that if you were not well, that there was simply something wrong with your body, and they did not care much about the effects of “bedside manner” or being social. I must say I think the medical profession has come a long, long way since then. A few years ago, the surgeon who was going to give me a new hip spent 15 minutes with me selecting some music I would like when I was being put to sleep temporarily for the operation. He had a great bedside manner! Teachers need a bedside manner! Our psychologies and biologies are connected to our sociologies and our overall well-being. Of course, today we could expand on this and call it “NeuroBioPsychoSocial.”

Curtis: NeuroBio….Bio…Explain more.

Tim: First let me start at the other end with how our biologies affect our BioPsychoSocial. Marc, you are always telling us that we should get students up and moving every 20 minutes to stimulate blood flow. That is even more important in these times of sitting-for-hours-looking at-the-internet. Switching between a sit-down and a stand-up computer option can get your blood moving and save you from backaches.

Above, we already mentioned the importance of psychosocial friend making. Another challenge, I make for myself is to try to make people smile with a compliment when I meet them. Nowadays, when we are all masked, it is hard to see, but you can see it in their eyes. Tell the clerk at the grocery store that you really like her hair, headband, or mask! Be brave! And do it as the last thing before you leave so they don’t have to respond to you. I do it regularly in elevators, just before I get out (not when I get in). I call it a “hit and run” compliment.

Getting psychological by getting interpersonal: I like to ask for individual, old fashioned emails from students about how they liked the class and if they had any questions. I usually ask for a copy of their notes, which should include the names of their breakout room partners (my way to make sure they write each others’ names down and learn them), what they talked about, and any stories they’d like to tell.

Curtis: Stories? There’s my cup of tea!

Tim: You know that I also do songlets a lot to get students to think positively. But I often get them to tell their own personal mistake stories in the breakout rooms, and their embarrassment and regret stories. Research shows that when you show vulnerability you bond better with others (Brené Brown, 2010).

Curtis: So, Tim, you opened the box when you mentioned music and stories, and that lets me pull out something I do every class. This is far easier to do in an online class than a face-to-face one and works wonderfully. I start the class with a music video and end it with a story video.

I’ve noticed students get to class early and attendance is usually 100%, so a few minutes before class starts (I don’t use the waiting room function) I show an interesting video in the Zoom screen share, usually a music video that I think will intrigue them.

Yesterday was Luna Lee’s Smells like Teen Spirit (but since they are young, I had to play the original Nirvana video as well).

And last week was Wuauquikuna’s Panflute Halleluiah.

As Gerry pointed out, this sets the mood and stimulates students’ curiosity, and it also gives me time to take attendance.

I end the class with a video too, but with a touching story instead of music video. Yesterday, I used this one-minute YouTube video (they should be 3 min. or less) of a Chinese man who ran into a police station and left boxes of masks.

There are also some touching corona stories in John Krazinsky’s “Some Good News” and I love the Thai insurance company stories like these two. Click on these examples to take a look.

And this one is SOOO inspiring:

You know, my students love the music at the start and touching video at the end. It makes everyone start in a good mood, and finish with a residue of emotions. It is so nice to see their smiles when we say goodbye. “Hit and run” videos?

So, in this time of difficulties, when online class prep takes forever and wifi connections break down, having some “good things” is like medicine for the soul.

Marc: Wow. I feel like we are all on the same track. I have a choice selection of starting music videos, too. In fact, in one of my books…

Robert Murphy: Hi Guys.

Tim, Curtis, Marc: Whaaaat? Robert, where did you come from?

Robert: I’ve been here the whole time listening in the background. After all, this is one of our original FAB Four parties, isn’t it? Anyway, I’d like to glean a couple points from all you’ve said. Here we go.

  1. Our classes are social events: We might even let the social aspect take center stage. Socializing plays an important role in helping students achieve independence from their parents. After all, becoming adult means becoming autonomous. We should not downplay the role we play in creating opportunities to share ideas.
  2. Enhance interaction: Zoom Breakout rooms, Flipgrid, and similar apps that encourage students to interact and satisfy that glaring need in their isolated lives… the need to socialize, which is deeper than “just having fun.” It is the main conduit towards developing moral and social skills. Likewise, try to be understanding when students go off topic in breakout rooms; it might be cathartic for them.
  3. Be sensitive: Inevitably, some students will drop their connection. It may not be their fault, so keep in mind how terrible they may feel for being shut out of the social experience. Try to make a connection in some other way—don’t let them fall through the cracks.
  4. Be positive. 2020 will go down in history for most as a tragedy. But, for us, let’s make it the year we grew collectively, as educators and students.

Gerry: A year when, in the face of great adversity, we refined our vision of all the possibilities waiting to be discovered in our classrooms–the potential in our students and within ourselves.

Curtis: There you go! As this meeting shows, 2020 is also the year when we liberated learning from the tyranny of proximity.

Tim: Surf ’s up!

Tim Murphey is a part-time (semi-retired, as of 2019) professor at KUIS (RILAE), Wayo Women’s University Graduate School, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies Graduate School, and Aoyama University. He has an M.A. in TESOL from the University of Florida, a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. [email protected]

Curtis Kelly (E.D.D.), the first coordinator of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, is a Professor of English at Kansai University in Japan. He is the producer of the Think Tanks, has written over 30 books and 100 articles, and given over 400 presentations. His life mission, and what drew him to brain studies, is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

Gerry Yokota, as of March 2020, is Professor Emerita at Osaka University. She continues to teach part-time in the International College there and at Kansai University. She is a cognitive linguist specializing in the use of metaphor in intercultural communication, with a focus on the representation of gender.

Marc Helgesen, Miyagi Gakuin, Sendai, is author of English Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX), the English Firsthand series (Pearson) and many other books and articles. Websites:, His main interests are positive psychology in ELT, brain science in ELT and BBQ (not necessarily in ELT).

Robert Murphy received his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Nottingham and M.A TESOL from the University of Birmingham (UK). He researches Teacher Education and authors neuroELT-based textbooks. He is co-founder of the FAB neuroELT conferences, stemming from studies in Mind, Brain, and Education (Harvard Graduate School of Education). [email protected]

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