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How the “Safe Zone” Creates An Aha!-Moment For Students and Motivates Their Learning

“I don’t want to learn English, but I have to.” This was the answer Matthias told me when I asked him why he wanted to learn English. He was confident yet nervous when he spoke about having to learn English. He was worried that he was doing the right thing. He had been a difficult schoolchild and his only memories of school and teachers — and especially memories of his English lessons and teacher — were not pleasant. He was honest and told me that he came because he believed I could break down his mental barrier to learning English.

He was a young German, wearing a colourful patterned shirt with jeans, earring in his ear and a friendly smile. He had come to me as a private student. His new company wasn’t going to pay for his lessons, although he needed English as a representative at trade fairs.

As the interview continued, it became clear that Matthias had a lot of prejudices. It also became clear, that he was uptight and worried that he wouldn’t manage to get over them. And of course, it became clear this young father desperately needed to find a safe zone to start anew.

However, here was student that had even admitted he would be a bad student and an even worse learner. As the interview progressed, and my questions were beginning to dig deeper into his knowledge of English, you could feel how his guard was going up, centimetre for centimetre. It was high time to coax my new student into a safe-zone.

Why you need to coax your students into a safe-zone

Matthias, isn’t your normal student coming to learn English. He was a special case. But he’s no exception to any other student coming to learn English in one respect: students need to have a safe zone to learn. Here age is no exception. Whether a young child or an adult, they all need a safe zone. A safe zone is a haven. It’s a safe place where mistakes or embarrassing moments are allowed. They are not discussed or laughed about outside the four walls of the classroom.

The difficult part is convincing the student that he is in that safe zone when he comes to you for his lessons.

Let’s take my German students as an example. How do I coax them into their “safe-” or “comfort-zone”? How do I “remove” a German’s drive for perfectionism? I ask two questions:

  1. “Do you speak German (your native tongue) 100 % correctly? That is, before you speak one sentence in German, do you control each sentence for its grammatical correctness? Or do you just go ahead and say what you have to say?”
  2. “If you don’t speak German 100% grammatically correct… why do you insist on speaking English perfectly?”

Once the safe or comfort-zone is in place, a teacher’s next step is perhaps not so obvious: taking the responsibility of your student’s past learning burdens and sharing the responsibility for the (your student’s) future learning.

Let’s explain: your student’s memories are usually based on school English. And these generally were not an especially successful period in their school career. You need to cut off your student’s past learning experience so he can start anew. You need to ease your student’s burden of past (bad) memories.

It’s about “burdens” but it’s also about responsibility in the safe-zone

There are many reasons why or how your students have failed learning experiences. But this no longer counts because they are here to start anew. However, they feel burdened with the weight of past failures. They drag the weight of failure whenever they try to learn again. All their lives, they have been told to be responsible for their own actions. And of course, this includes any learning they undertake. But the iron ball and chain is a hindrance, and it slows down their progress.

You have to remove it for them. You have to share and then take over the burdens of past bad learning experiences.

Allow your student to release himself from his so-called failure in learning English. It was the old system of teaching English, or it was the dreadful teacher in school, the boredom in the lessons… etc. Just accept everything he says because there are times when it’s good to pass on some of the responsibility to someone you feel able to shoulder the burden. It relaxes the strain. It relaxes the stress. It frees the body and mind to concentrate on new matters at hand.

And this is what you do. You accept verbatim the burden of past failures (no matter what, or where, the core of the problem is) because your student is now here and needs your help to overcome them. You help them start anew.

Examples are numerous, but the most well-known example is that of talking your heart out to complete strangers in trains, well knowing you’ll never see them again…

Is this method of coaxing students into their safe-zone ethically correct?

Yes, it is because you are only relieving the burden of past failures or embarrassments. You are not taking over their responsibility for their future learning. You are only removing the burden of the past.

Once your student “feels” he has a clean sheet, the way is open to achieving your ultimate aim: your student’s first Aha!-moment. The second Aha!-moment soon follows. And then the third… and before long, both and your student are enjoying a reciprocal exchange of Aha!-moments.

So what do these Aha!-moments result in? Your student’s success.

Summary and Action plan

Matthias stayed with me for over a year. During this time he reported his Aha!-moments with a grin that rivalled the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland”. The first was a successful exchange of email and telephone information. Then came successes in various trade fairs which in turn led to more responsibility and as he attended meetings. He watches English DVDs with his small children and still comes to pick up English graded readers. Matthias is successful with his English and it shows. But it would have been a different ending for Matthias if there was no safe-zone to develop his own private, personal Aha!-moments.

As for me, his teacher? My grin can also rival the Cheshire Cat. 🙂

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