Causes for some people not learning

I often wonder why my methods and approach are not successful when they aren’t, and I try to understand what happens during the process of establishing rapport, which is where most disconnects related to learning and development I primarily identify. Unlike the industry standard first lesson, where I’ve noticed most English language instructors introduce themselves and begin moving through the text or materials, I engage learners in dialogue with the specific aim of evaluating their natural abilities, although without the word ‘evaluation’ being said.

Already, as may be seen from the headings below, role expectations are disrupted or unmet. Unfortunately for the status quo in most ESL interactions, so little of value seems to be generated, and the tone of passive student and controlling teacher remains. This is the paradigm which continues to produce unskilled staff on both sides of the educational interaction, thusly, I cannot follow this model.

As a result, I invest my and my client’s time in authentic dialogue relevant to communicative skills development. By stepping out of the archaic teacher-to-student paradigm, I am confronted with the following range of reactions which may not necessarily be obvious to standard ESL learning contexts. Perhaps they are not even relevant when the only goal is to ‘complete’ a certain number of pages in a text, or a given set of materials.

Please enjoy this excursion through adult learning.

Some people do not want to learn

This is true. I take these types of people as a challenge to understand the reason they do not. I have had some people offended that I try to understand, but most seem confused, yet pleased, that I bother to learn about them. In my experience, many have had repeated experiences of being proven incapable, such as years of poor test results; others simply never experienced a learning style they could engage with; others still simply hate English, which is a fair call, I reckon. Some few are belligerent and simply refuse beyond any reason – definitely an issue to refer to their manager.

Some are not ready to learn

I have had some students who walk in, as if in a daze, and sit down and stare blankly. It usually takes a few classes before they realise where they are and what is at stake – most I’ve had are sent to prepare for their overseas transfer. My challenge here is to form a connection, if not between them and their esoteric professional needs, but at least between me and them. Once they identify me as a real being sitting in front of them, I’ve noticed that most come back to Earth and begin considering their situation more realistically.

Some want to learn but are not ready

I have had very few students like this, but usually the ‘not ready’ part is related to their investing the time and effort into actually acquiring new skills. Concentration is usually low, despite motivation appearing to be high. I’ve tried bringing structure to the interaction, in the form of how they can identify their own improvements through particular activities, but even during class time, attention seems to flit away. I revert to ‘positive experience forms positive memories of the language’ position.

Some want to learn but do not know how

For me, this is the most common type of person I encounter. Neither school nor university seem to invest in the concept of various learning styles, and unfortunately, ESL in general, as I’ve discovered through a variety of ostensibly different companies, perpetrates this unenlightened educational paradigm. The grammar-translation method has been repeatedly proven over the past thirty years to simply be ineffective in actual communication skills development. Not sure about that? Try having a conversation with someone who has any TOEIC score up to about 850, and who hasn’t been overseas. Some few have the gift of language acquisition, but most people do not. Additional learning strategies are critical to this person’s skills development.

Some know they must learn but are disconnected

The difference with the above categories of one of motivation: intrinsic or extrinsic. This is a vital difference when understanding what may be preventing learning. I usually observe that this person is motivated to improve their professional skills, but their personal desires, values or beliefs are unaligned. Sometimes they are willing to open up more about their personal side, yet at other times, I can only focus on their professional motivations. I have noticed that these people usually do not develop any nuance in their language use, which to me indicates that personal connection is vital to advanced competencies.

Some expect a specific role which is not met

This is the main learning block I have identified with not just students, learners and clients, but also coworkers and employers. Gaining a TESOL licence before I started in the ESL industry, most companies walked me through the front door and into a classroom with no in-house training or orientation. It is only later, sometimes years later, when a client suddenly complains that I am not ‘doing my job’, and a great deal of confusion then erupts, and all trust is lost.

I can only warn anyone who invests in their ESL/TESOL/ELI career that most people who ‘teach’ English in Japan do not have any experience or qualifications in TESOL. At universities and some companies, some foreigners in Japan have MA’s in Applied Linguistics, which is not TESOL, although somewhat related. The fundamental difference between the two, as far as I have observed, is the fundamental role of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, and the power relation between the two.

Of the fifteen to twenty companies I have either applied to work at, or have held, or still hold employment at, the expectation is that the ‘teacher’ shall lead the ‘student’ through supplied materials. This means providing sufficient repetitive practice of each supplied activity before moving onto the next. The focus is always on how well the student completes each activity, and the skill of the teacher is in effectively and efficiently supporting this completion. Timing of each activity is naturally strict.

Anyone who is familiar with adult learning or student-centred may already have identified the flaw, and those with experience in this industry may easily identify this situation. Yet despite the status quo of the teacher-centred approach, I regularly have great success in helping the people I work with develop their communicative skill, self-confidence, professionalism, and general awareness. The evidence of their improvement proves that the roles we engage in get results, which of course leads to satisfaction. The challenge is between the evidence coming to light, and the time it takes a specific person to recognise it as valuable.

Some cannot study alone

I look in the mirror and see this type, and so when I see this type sitting in front of me, I must reign in my coach’s/instructor’s drive to motivate this person to do something outside the class, and to just be with them. It is easy to find many opinions negatively weighing in about Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, but by simply assuming it to be true, I extracted a great deal of value from my interactions. Assuming that some people are inter-social, not intra-social, I could allow myself to negate my expectations, and more openly perceive who was sitting in front of me. This has been a valuable skill for me in supporting a much wider variety of learning styles, and to simply be more accepting.

Illuminating Questions

What do you need English for?

Why are you studying English?

If your English was good, what could you do?

How do you like to study?

How would you like to study English?

What would you like to study?

What are you interested in?

How can you combine English with your passion?

How do you know if your English has improved?

What is one skill you would like to improve this month?

How can I give you feedback?

How would you like me to give feedback?

How did you study English in high school?

What skills did you use?

What skills do you need now?

How would you like to develop them?

How can you enjoy developing them?

What subject did you enjoy studying?

How did you study that?

How do you enjoy learning?

What do you enjoy learning about?

Learning Styles


Primary input modalities: some people see information with their mind’s eye and operate visually; some people hear what is said and adapt that information audibly; others require the actual and physical steps and movement by which to connect with that information, and then manipulate it for better comprehension. I much better understood why I couldn’t catch explanations after I realised I was strongly K with some V. I am very low on A – a skill I’ve had to develop as an instructor.

Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner extended these definitions as more subtle learning differences became clearer, suggesting a total of ten different ways in which different people exemplify ‘intelligence’ based on eight criteria. Veracity aside – what is ‘intelligence’? – allowing for different people to evince their own style can only be a positive in the learning environment. It takes a certain sensitivity to be open to that which we do not inherently possess. I fully recommend the effort.

Authentic interactions

Adult learning research identified L1 discussion about L2 as the vital difference in standard ESL practices: when participants could discuss the differences in their native languages, adults are able to make mental connections with current neurological networks. This results in skills development and language acquisition. Other research evaluated textbook dialogues and authentic dialogues to be shown as vastly, qualitatively different. As far back as the 1940’s, drills and rote memorisation were proven worthless in promoting linguistic competence: comprehension is a result of a process of negotiation of meaning, and there is no ‘short cut’.


David Rock based his successful coaching methodology on neuroscience research conducted by Naomi Eisenberger, which demonstrated similarities between physical pain and social pain. Extrapolating these findings from our fundamental human ‘pain-avoidance, pleasure-seeking’ principle, Rock realised that so many of our social and professional interactions trigger the fight/flight response. The stress most of us feel every day at work is this desire to fight or flee which we suppress, and the SCARF model is a vital tool for not only identifying, but ameliorating, triggering interactions with coworkers. SCARF also applies well to students who are terrified, or who suddenly seem disconnected from the class.

Not NLP, but Neurolanguage

Neuro-linguistic programming is a three-layered promotion and counselling technique which grew out of Transactional Analysis in the 1970’s. Today, many have found benefit in moving themselves outside their current thinking process – Level 1, or unveiling new and old perceptions with guided visualisations and hypnosis – Level 2. Not many have experienced the paradigm-altering Symbolic Modelling of Level 3, yet none of these are related to Neurolanguage.

Neuroscience is the study of the brain’s networks, what they respond to and correlate with, and how they interact; Neurolanguage is the application of what networks respond to what verbal inputs. This field of study provides us with a very clear correlation of communicative approaches and expected outcomes. Not only how we may turn a phrase, but by introducing and incorporating the working of the brain with language students gives them a way to manage their own brain, and their own learning.

Neurolanguage Coaching, developed by Rachel Paling, specifically focusses on the combination of language learning, coaching, and an awareness of neuroscience, which together reinforce and promote a positive experience of continuously progressing language learning. NLP is based in psychology and the roles of therapist and client; Neurolanguage is based in coaching and neuroscience.

Why do I do it? And how?

Me? I want to help the world improve: we have to make this a better place. I have limited skills and resources, so I focus on each millimetre I can assist another in their own development. Maybe I cannot improve myself, despite trying, but I observe repeated progress in the people around me with whom I come into contact. I observe through others my contribution. What else is there to do? I must make a difference, and my difference must be a positive. To this end I try.

I tend to listen and support a lot. What other way is there? I’ve discovered that most people have a very good idea about what they need and how they wish to get there, but most have never actually verbalised such things. So I just keep asking questions to these ends, and eventually most begin their own progress, regardless of what they may have experienced, or expected, before.

Something that does not translate to an article like this is the huge dollops of humour delivered with cultural references and harmless jokes. Most don’t mind the mirth, or attempts at, yet others cannot reconcile the concept of ‘teacher’ with that of ‘laughing’, but this is just about expectations, again. Some love the fun and engage enthusiastically!

I wanted to articulate my observations on the factors which most often limit progress from taking place, perhaps serving as a guide to others who wish to shift their educational paradigm. This change has resulted in a lot of success over the years for those I’ve worked with, and above I’ve tried to clarify some of the realities of trying to make that change. And whatever form limitations take, the most important factor is the time it takes to go from inertia to vital movement, from passivity to activity, from weakness to power.