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  • Herbert Puchta

Herbert Puchta - Engaging teens emotionally

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 32 No. 3 Summer 2015

Engaging teens emotionally with Herbert Puchta 

Herbert Puchta holds a PhD in ELT Pedagogy and was Professor of English at the Teacher Training University in Graz, Austria. A former President of IATEFL, Herbert has been doing research on the practical application of findings from cognitive psychology and brain research to the teaching of English as a Foreign Language.

He has co-authored numerous coursebooks as well as articles and resource books. His latest resource books by Helbling Languages include Teaching Young Learners to Think: ELT-activities for Young Learners Aged 6-12, with Marion Williams (2012), Grammar Songs and Raps with Matthew Devitt, Günter Gerngross, and Christian Holzmann (2012), and Get on Stage! with Günter Gerngross and Matthew Devitt (2012). His latest coursebooks for young teens published by Cambridge University Press are Super Minds with Günter Gerngross and Peter Lewis-Jones (2012) and More! with Jeff Stranks, Günter Gerngross, Christian Holzmann, and Peter Lewis-Jones (2010). You can read more about Herbert here:

First of all I’d like to thank you for doing this interview for ETAS Journal and our future website.

I’m very happy to be here, thank you for this opportunity. It’s always great to be back with ETAS.

What do you consider to be the main differences between teaching teens, adults, and young learners?

There are obvious differences such as age, but I think the main differences are related to cognitive development.

One model that I found incredibly insightful is Kieran Eagan’s theory of human development. He says that individual human beings go through developmental processes that are similar to the development of human kind as a species. He talks about children having these mythic thinking qualities that enable them to understand the world through polarities such as good versus evil.  Hence they need stories that reflect these qualities to be able to develop their cognitive tools.

Then adolescents go through a phase Eagan refers to as the Romantic period, an emotional time because, although teens try and look cool on the outside, they see the world as a very threatening place for them. They need the security of the peer group, they need stories of heroes and heroines, and they need to be in contact with qualities such as courage, creativity, love, genius, and so on – qualities that they feel they need in order to succeed and to face the threats of the world.

The next phase, late teens, is the philosophical age, where they develop an interest in theories. Finally, the developed adult is referred to by Eagan as the ironic thinker, a sophisticated state of mind, which also draws on all the qualities of the previous stages. Since each different stage has different cognitive and content needs, we must use content that is relevant to them in order to engage them emotionally.

You wrote a book with Mario Rinvolucri about Multiple Intelligences (MI) in the language classroom, do you think this is still relevant to teaching teens today?

The MI theory has recently been the focus of a lot of criticism, with claims that it is a pseudoscience, etc. I have always said that it’s not about testing people and putting them in boxes. We found Garner’s model a useful and simple model that explains that people are different in their cognitive preferences and in the way they process information. If we can include multiple methods of activating our students’ learning, then we will reach out to them as we try to do in the book. The activities we have developed help teachers to engage the students by appealing to different ways of thinking. It’s important to say it’s not a scientific method and we all have our weaknesses and strengths. Talking to teens about this can be very supportive, as it shows them you can still be considered an intelligent person even with weaknesses in mathematics, for example. Our intelligences or capabilities are not set in stone; they can be improved and worked on.

Your keynote speech at the ETAS AGM and Annual Conference was about engaging students emotionally. How does this differ from motivating them?

For me, there’s no motivation without emotional engagement, and the latest research in neurobiology supports this. James Zull, for example, says that our brain is an organ of emotion. When students deal with relevant content, when they feel they are making progress, when they understand that what they are learning is relevant and useful for their future development, when they feel they have some control over their learning process, then they are emotionally engaged, and when they are emotionally engaged, then they are more motivated.

To what extent do you think approaches such as Dogme can be used in the teen classroom?

I think Dogme is more a quality of teaching than an approach, a useful reminder of something that is important in language teaching: that it is not the material, nor the techniques, nor the language as such that is the most important element of a class, but what is going on inside and between the people in the classroom. So, the focus has to be on the relationships in the classroom and what people bring to the classroom.

I don’t believe that we can do without materials – I’m a coursebook writer after all! There are obviously teachers who can teach without materials, and they probably teach fewer hours than some of their colleagues. However, most teachers appreciate the support materials can bring. Of course, these materials must be relevant to the students so that they are emotionally engaged and can use the language to talk about themselves. I think there should not be one single lesson without the quality of Dogme. In a podium discussion at the IATEFL conference last year, Luke Meddings agreed that a Dogme-only approach was impossible, though we agreed on the importance of a Dogme quality. The other thing that Dogme has reminded us of is the importance of error-welcome modes in education.

What advice would you give someone going into teaching teens? Many seem to dread it.

Well, I think it was Michael Green who said if you can teach teens, you can teach anyone. Certainly, it’s one of the biggest challenges we can meet as teachers. On the other hand, it can be extremely inspiring and a wonderful thing to create that classroom culture that students actually want to be part of. It is great if a teacher is prepared to spend time developing this kind of classroom culture, this quality that creates responsibility and allows students to interact with each other and with the teacher in an authentic way by saying what they think and feel. A teacher should respect the young student as a person. If a teacher can do all this, then I think that being the teacher of teenagers can be a very rewarding experience. You must try and remember what it was like to be a teenager yourself and help them in their development. Being a teenager is not always easy; teens need support and patience. They also need a teacher with a good sense of humour, a teacher who can laugh, not only with the students but also at themselves.

You are interested in running and photography. Do you have time to keep up these hobbies while you are travelling?

I’m very lucky and privileged to be invited to so many places, but it can be time-intensive. While away, I often go running. It is simple and you don’t need much equipment. But since photography is more complicated, I tend to leave that for two or three weeks in the year when I’m free.

What can you tell us about your current projects?

I’m involved in a coursebook for adult learners entitled Empower, where I’ve had the chance to work with some great co-authors like Craig Thain, Adrian Doff, Jeff Stranks, and Peter Lewis-Jones. I’m also working on a very exciting book for teachers with the neurobiologist James Zull, with a working title of The Brain, Emotions and Language Learning, and I’m learning a lot from this collaboration myself. At the same time, I’m working on a resource book on how to teach very young learners, a very important area as there’s a tendency to start at a younger age. However, a lot of research shows that if it’s not done properly, then it’s a waste of time and resources. We need to learn from this research.

Thank you very much for sharing your time and thoughts with our readers.

Rachael Harris