Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee
– Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali –
Have you ever wondered why you sometimes fail to make a dent on your learners? Why at the end of class you felt like you’d been hitting a brick wall? You had them reeling but you couldn’t knock them out with a piledriver of a lesson?
But if you thought that, let me tell you that you are wrong. You have all the muscle you need to knock language sense into your learners: you just need to learn a lesson or two from boxers.
You just need to learn to punch your weight in the classroom.
Where a knockout punch begins
Boxing is a punishing sport which on the surface might not seem to have much to do with the collaborative work of teaching and learning. Get under the surface, however, and you see that classroom practitioners could actually learn a lot from the pugilist. Let me explain.
Anyone who hasn’t boxed might think that a knockout punch is a matter of raw strength but this is not true. In reality, a 50 kilo weakling can knock out an opponent twice their size. That is, they can if they know about:
For the remainder of this post, feel free to imagine me in a wooly sailor’s hat, snarling and muttering about “becoming a very dangerous poisun (person)” like Mickey the trainer from the Rocky movies.
Boxers are masters of timing. They have to be. If they misjudge a feint from their opponent for an opening in his or her guard, they end up on the canvas wondering what day it is. They learn though hundreds of hours of brutal immediate feedback only to react to threat and opportunity where these are clear and present. When the experienced boxer senses their opponent dropping their guard, moving into range or otherwise displaying a vulnerability, they are already putting their body in motion to meet it with aggressive force.
Teachers can learn something from this. If the notion of emergent language and engaging with complex dynamic systems has taught us anything, it is the importance of waiting for, and taking advantage of, the opportune moment. If we react and jump on everything that appears to have potential learning value in our lessons, we run the risk of achieving nothing. Conversely if we keep our guard up throughout classes, dancing about the ring – sorry, classroom – only intent on minimising the punishment we take, then we run the risk of not making an impact on our learners.
Instead, learn to be patient. Spend more time observing and evaluating, noticing when true language learning is emerging from the surrounding language use. You might notice this by asking yourself some of the questions relating to noticing emergent language that I suggest in my webinar about what makes a lesson great.
Whatever it is that sends you the message to swing into action, resist the temptation to come out swinging. Because a knockout punch starts from an unexpected place.
You might think that a punch starts in the shoulder. Makes sense: you cock your fist close to that point and send it towards your opponent. Punching that way, however, means you won’t punch your way out of a wet paper bag.
A true knockout punch starts, not at your shoulders, but at your feet.
The heels of the feet are cocked off the ground slightly, to keep you mobile. In the moment the body moves into strike mode, the front heel, imperceptibly, moves downward towards the floor. This grounding leads to a transfer of force up the straightening leg, through the powerful lever of the hip. Meeting the core muscles of the trunk of the body, the subtle turning of the hip towards the target that this triggers leads to a massive loading and amplification of force, channeled through the body out via the shoulder. The arm, which unloads as inevitably as a shot from the chamber of a gun, delivers the hand towards the target with the power behind it of a physical tsunami which started building at ground level – compressed into the square inch of the first two knuckles of the fist.
This is leverage: taking a small amount of effort and, through a series of mechanical amplifications, achieving much greater degree of power on the receiving end.
In teaching terms, we will make a much greater impact on our learners and their learning if we can learn some lessons about how to leverage opportunities in the classroom. Naturally, we won’t be trying to meet what our learners say and do with aggressive counterforce, but the basic principles of finding your feet, transferring power progressively and concentrating effort are worth considering.
Finding your feet
When I was starting out in teaching, the classroom kept me constantly on my guard and I came out swinging at anything that seemed like a useful language target. I was tense and overactive. Over time, I learnt that much of what goes on in lessons is merely activity; relatively few of these “teachable moments” are truly productive and worth following through on.
What are their characteristics? One indicator is that learners shift from discussing meaning to considering form – this is what Michael Long called negotiation for meaning, where learners realise a disruption in their communication which they sense can only be solved by attendance to the form of tehir utterances. Though subsequent research (by Prof. Pauline Foster and others), has shown that Long’s posited focus on morpho-syntax does not generally occur when learners talk to each other, it is still true to say that learner positively support each other when communication gets muddied, often lexically, and that these moments are worth taking advantage of.
To do this, they need to be pinned down. As the boxer pins the emerging moment leading to a knockout punch down beneath his or her heel by a suble grounding, unnoticed by the opponent, the teacher can do the same my noting – literally, noting down – such events. This simple act of pinning down a moment in a lesson makes it retrievable later.
Taking note of learner language is an apparently simple job, but it is surprisingly challenging to do well in practice. Classrooms are noisy and messy environments, and capturing accurate soundbites from your learners, grasping in real time where the learning opportunity resides in what has been said, and considering a means of exploiting this with your learners possibly within a minute or two, is hard work.
It is, however, well within the grasp of most teachers I have met – novice or veteran. Like landing a haymaker punch, it is simply a matter of practice.
Transferring power progressively
Pinning the learning moment down is only the start of a chain of actions leading to a bombshell of a learning moment.
After the teacher has nailed the learning opportunity down, they need gradually to move towards their learners’ boundary of knowledge and/or competence in this area, and push beyond it. This needs to be done in a measured way, or else the learners will be overwhelmed; but it also needs to be swift enough to make use of the power of momentum: (s)he who hesitates is lost.
Beginning teachers often fall into one of two camps when it comes to approaching learner language: either they are too cautious, or they are too eager.
The former group might be able to capture useful language from learner output, but are so hesitant and unconfident in engaging with learners about it that focus and assurance suffer and the potential benefit is lost.
The latter group is too swift in trying to make the learners see the point, and forget that what may seem obvious to the teacher may be less so to the learner. So the teacher rushes, often with a great deal of teacher talk and little learner engagement or checking of understanding, and in the end nothing is achieved.
Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot where the teacher, working from a concrete example salvaged from their notes, helps the learners re-inhabit this classroom moment and relive this language for a second time. In this more considered re-experience, the teacher uses exemplification, explanation, enquiry and elicitation to raise the learners’ awareness above the plane of the concrete example to the wider horizons of the generalisable pattern. This work may take minutes or it may take moments, but either way, it will be powered by a steadily increasing accumulation of effort and focus.
Speaking of focus, it isn’t true to say that a boxer hits with his or her fist; they hit with the first two knuckles. This area, less than one square inch, is where all the accumulated and amplified force of a punch has ended up loaded, waiting to unload on an unsuspecting target.
Teachers have a similar job of concentrating effort to do. Instead of physical effort, the job for teachers is to move their learners’ attention and mental effort from the specific example mentioned earlier to the more general patterns underpinning it. In this abstraction there is a converse condensation of effort – the more a learner needs to generalise from an example instead of simply memorising it as given without alteration or variation, the more cognitive effort they need to invest.
Memorisation, while challenging, is in a sense an unintelligent act – it does not require much reason, abstraction, logic, or other higher order mental effort. So learning the chunk “it’s not the sort of thing that you think would ever happen to you”, while long, is cognitively little different from learning the words “uppercut” or “left hook“.
In contrast, learning that there is a powerful pattern with several variable slots underpinning that fixed expression that can be manipulated and exploited takes real concentration and focus before learners can generate the following:
He’s not the sort of person that you think would ever do a thing like that
It’s not the sort of event that you think you would ever want to go to
They aren’t the sort of questions that you think you would ever need to ask
We will not always get this work of concentrating and focusing on language right, as this candid and perceptive recent post from Hugh Dellar shows. His conclusion that “more os sometimes less” is, I think, in line with the idea of looking at less language more carefully, thoroughly and intensely in class.
If you have ever tried to knock someone out, you will know that it isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies. It is incredibly hard to do it with a straight punch to the chin because the chances of making sufficient contact on such a small area are low. A safer option is to come in from the side, and seek out the larger area of the side of the jaw. This is why the uppercut is such a difficult shot to get right, and the left hook is the weapon of choice for the knockout-meister.
In teaching terms, what would such targeting look like? In the post by Hugh Dellar I just mentioned, he identifies some principles worth restating here when approaching lexis:
- target the language in the context learners encounter it first
- then work out towards related parts of speech/grammar patterns within that context
- then work on to conceptually related uses of the word
A knockout punch does not stop when the fist meets the jaw. Anyone who has seen Mike Tyson or Smokin’ Joe Frazier delivering the definition of a jaw-breaking uppercut knows what I mean here: the fist continues travelling through the target, or at least tries to do so. The idea here is that impact is a result of pressure plus speed, and this entails force moving through the target.
Failure to do this in boxing is known as pulling your punches, which is where we get the idiom from. If you as a teacher also want to make an impact, you need to learn not to pull your punches, and follow-through on learning.
In class, this might mean:
- creating short and simple practice tasks to take advantage of learning arising from an unplanned correction
- returning to an earlier teaching moment later in a lesson to check retention
- returning to an earlier learning moment in later lessons to check longer term retention
- deliberately building recent language into future course material and tasks to provide regular and spaced opportunities for re-encountering the language
This post has already gone 15 rounds and the final bell is sounding loud and clear. Well done for bobbing and weaving through this all – I would love to hear your comments on it.
But as this is a boxing-related entry, I can’t help but leave the last word to a boxing icon, who has some wise words about the fact that it isn’t only about the impact we make on our learners, but how relentless we can be in moving forward in our pursuit of their development.
All still images were sourced with Creative Commons licences. Rocky trailer can be found on YouTube-