It probably goes without saying that the single reason students study another language is to learn how to communicate in that language. We cannot socialize with other people without using language. And yet, how often do we encounter language classrooms with no social interaction at all beyond a teacher lecturing about grammar to passive students? When do these students actually socialize with each other in their target language?
No wonder so many students lose interest in or give up on language learning.
In the main video for this month’s issue, Matthew Lieberman talks about two superpowers of the brain: the benefits of social pain and the ability to “mentalize.” It certainly seems pretty counterintuitive to think of social pain as a superpower, but Lieberman argues that our need to socialize—and the (very real) pain we experience after instances of social rejection—is at the very core of human survival and drives all that we do. He presents evidence showing how social pain is as neurologically real as physical pain, involving the same areas of the brain; surprisingly, the pain of social rejection can be eased just like the pain of a headache, by taking some Tylenol. His research gives us another compelling reason to prevent bullying in our classrooms, as students experiencing the social pain of being bullied have impaired learning abilities. Just as we wouldn’t expect students to sit in a classroom and continue learning while bleeding from an open wound, we shouldn’t ask them to try and “put away” their social pain and focus instead on the classwork. Instead, we need to make our classrooms a safe space for students to socialize and learn together with their peers.
The other superpower, mentalizing, is our ability to guess at the thoughts and emotions of another person: to essentially “read their minds.” According to Lieberman, we do this almost constantly while interacting with others. This ability isn’t perfect, of course; nonetheless, it’s an activity that our minds engage in persistently. One way of leveraging this particular superpower with students is through the use of peer tutoring. Lieberman suggests that, rather than the typical pattern of having a student who has mastered the content tutor their struggling peers, we should instead do the opposite by tasking the struggling student with teaching the content to their peers. He argues that learning something in order to teach it is the most effective way of learning because it activates the “social thinking” regions of the brain instead of the “analytic thinking” regions. When we engage in learning something to teach to others, our brains approach the material differently, and we end up learning the content more deeply.
Since the goal of language learning is socializing, there’s plenty of ways that language teachers can nurture these superpowers in classrooms. For instance, instead of lecturing about a grammar point to students, why not introduce them to some materials about the grammar point and have them teach it to their peers? Doing so in a Jigsaw style would be an easy, interactive way to encourage deeper mastery of the grammar point. If we embed socialization into our activities, students will be more motivated to do them. Even in the current age of remote learning, we can find ways to make activities interactive by utilizing tools such as Flipgrid or chatrooms so that students can activate their “social thinking” brain regions while they work with the material.
Along with the two superpowers, Lieberman talked about a social kryptonite that we all have a tendency to experience: forgetting just how important socialization is. Of course, we know that social connections are important, but how often do we consistently encourage their formation between students in our classroom activities? Purely analytical tasks like listening to lectures, dictation exercises, and filling in the blanks on worksheets are this kryptonite in action, as they do not readily allow for students to turn on their “social thinking” brain regions. When students lose sight of the communicative goal of language learning, they can lose interest in the entire endeavor.
So, then, as educators we have to avoid falling victim to this kryptonite and instead design our classrooms to allow our students to use their social superpowers to the fullest. In this month’s issue, we hope to give you some tools you can use in your superhero toolbelt by exploring the social brain more deeply and examining techniques that encourage socialization in the classroom.
Julia Daley is a lecturer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University, where she teaches English conversation and writing. She earned her MA in TESL at Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach secondary English in Arizona. She appreciates everyone’s patience as she learns how to develop a website.