The least talked-about yet most important attribute of an effective MFL teacher

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MFL teachers are typically involved in CPD events which deal with L2 teaching methodology and techniques, the use of technology in the classroom, motivational theory and practice, learning management and differentiation, AFL , lifelong-learning skills and team building. However, they rarely explicitly focus on enhancing the teacher attribute that is crucial to the success of all of that : Cognitive Empathy.

Cognitive Empathy (henceforth CE) refers to the teacher’s ability to sync every level of their teaching (e.g. planning lessons, classroom delivery, feedback provision, target-setting, setting out-of-the-classroom consolidation work) to their students’ cognition. It is a distinct construct to Emotional Empathy (another crucial attribute of an effective teacher), in that it does not concern itself with socio-affective empathising (reading our students’ emotional states), but rather with the understanding of what goes on through the MFL learner’s mind. CE and EE (emotional empathy) do overlap in some areas, but for CPD purposes they are best kept separate, whilst hammering home to teachers the importance of their mutual synergy : for either of them to effectively impact teaching and learning it needs to be supported by the other.

Someone may object that since a lot of effort is placed, in CPD, on differentiation, CE is not as ‘neglected’ as I claim. However, differentiation usually concerns itself with the implementation of techniques to tackle identified issues in our students’ cognition, but not with the identifications of the root causes of those problems.

And how about AFL strategies? Does formative assessment of the like envisaged by Dylan William not address this issue ? Yes and no. As I reserve to discuss below, it does so only partially and through means which do not delve deep enough into our students’ cognition. And as for Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences research, they are out of the equation as they are invalid constructs based on phony research.

Data obtained through baseline testing (i.e. MiddYS, Yellis, etc.) with alleged high predictive power are indeed useful. However, they provide but a snapshot of our students’ cognition at a specific moment in time. Also, teachers are rarely, if ever, trained in reading what the categories and scores made available to them actually mean and how they relate to our students’ learning.

CE, as I envisage it, requires 5 macro-competences :

(1) An awareness of the cognitive challenges posed by foreign language learning in general and by the specific language items one is teaching  – especially in the planning of a lesson ;

(2) An understanding of how the target learners respond to such challenges. This also involves an awareness of how cognition in an MFL learning context is affected by individual variables (e.g. specific age group, gender, personality types, culture, etc.)

(3) Metacognition – Obviously, effective teachers constantly keep in their focal awareness the importance of syncing their teaching with the cognitive needs of their learners, but they must also :

  • constantly reflect on their practice as cognitively empathetic teachers , both before, during and after their lessons ;
  • use their own past experiences as language learners to enhance their levels of cognitive empathy ;
  • start and maintain an ongoing metacognitive dialogue with their learners (e.g. through feedback or learner reflective journals) ;
  • actively seek ways to further their understanding of learner cognitive needs (which relates to the next point).

(4) Research methodoly knowledge and skills – Teachers need to be able to discern between valid and ‘phony’ theory and research. This is important when one thinks of how some less than reliable research (e.g. the one of Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles) has affected us over the decades – with hardly any positive result – in terms of educational policies and prescribed pedagogical approaches. The ability to understand how reliable a piece of research is can prevent teachers from adopting teaching approaches or techniques acritically. Moreover, teachers need a degree of expertise on how to obtain and analyze useful data that may inform their curricular and methodological choices. For example, in my own practice, my mastery of the use of think-aloud protocols, interviews and retrospective verbal reports (acquired during my Ph.D and MA ) has helped me a great deal in terms of developing my understanding of students’ problems. On the other hand, lack of expertise in this domain often leads to an overliance on questionnaires (not valid research tools) which are not always well crafted (e.g. rarely include measures to reinforce their internal validity) or to other less than valid research practices. This overliance on questionnaires can be highly detrimental to teaching and learning, especially when the quantitative data obtained through such procedures are used as determinant of educational policies.

(5) Metadigital awareness – this is of crucial importance at this time of revolutionary technological advances as digital assisted learning is playing an important role in many MFL classrooms around the world. Teachers need to become increasingly aware of the impact of the specific digital medium (or media) they use in the classrom and internet based resources on learner cognition (see my article on the ‘Five central psychological challenges of mobile learning’). Knowing how a given technological device -and related apps – works and knowing how to use it effectively to enhance learning are two very different things. That is why, ICT integration coaches should not only be teachers with high levels of digital knowledge ; but, also, and most importantly, ought to be highly metacognizant outstanding practitioners deeply aware of how the internet and digital media affect students’ thinking and learning processes.

What are the implications for teacher professional development ?

Firstly, CPD should focus much more than it currently does on rendering MFL teachers highly conversant with current theory and research on language acquisition and on how they can inform effective classroom practice. The current practice of providing teachers with behavioural templates (e.g. tasks or sequence of tasks to use in class) disjointed from a solid reference framework is insufficient in generating high level of teaching competence.

Secondly, professional development should aim at expanding teacher understanding of how individual variables affect learning. For instance, psychological research  has generated lots of useful taxonomies for the classification of personality types which can be very useful for teachers in understanding learner attitudes and behaviour. Such taxonomies (e.g. Myers and Briggs, see: )  are used on a daily basis in the corporate world to assess and cater for staff, but rarely imparted on teachers. Moreover, there is quite a fairly solid body of research on how individual factors (e.g. aptitude, gender and age) interact with L2 language acquisition that teachers may benefit greatly from.

Thirdly, in the realm of metacognitive and teacher-skills enhancement, CPD should focus teachers on the importance of CE and scaffold self-reflection in this area whilst equipping them with the tools which can enhance it (e.g. the ones discussed in the previous two paragraphs.). Teachers should also be made conversant with effective approaches that can foster an ongloing metacognitive dialogue with the students vis-à-vis their learning needs. Some approaches and techniques useful in starting such dialogue, drawn from AFL practice (e.g. questionnaire/student voice and reflective journals), are quite common in many MFL classrooms ; others, like think-aloud, concurrent introspection and retrospective verbal reports (see my article on ‘Think-aloud’) are less frequently used but are more valuable in getting into our students’ thinking processes and identifying their learning problems.

Fourthly, for teachers to be able to effectively understand their learners’ thinking processes they must be conversant with some of the fundamentals of research methodology. CPD should focus on this important set of skills more than it is currently done and foster an environment conducive to classroom-based research (N.B. I am not envisaging PhD level research, here, but a much smaller scale and less formal kind). Schools often base their educational policies on data obtained from studies often geographically and culturally distant ; classroom-based research carried out within their walls, on the other hand, may be more relevant and therefore impact learning more effectively. Ultimately, an effective MFL classroom-based teacher-researcher will be a more cognitively empathetic instructor.

The fifth component of Cognitive Empathy, Metadigital learning awareness, is the most difficult to address in CPD in view of the lack of a solid body of research which can inform teacher training in this area. This is the domain in which, in my opinion being a self-reflective practitioner and an effective classroom-based researcher can be extremely useful. Hence, at this moment in time at least, CPD that attempts to address this metacomponent of Cognitive Empathy should focus less on making teachers conversant with relevant research and more on enhancing their reflective and research skills.

In conclusion, this article advocates the need for CPD in MFL teaching to focus much more than it currently does on the development of Cognitive Empathy. I have argued that simply training teachers in the deployment of AFL and differentiation strategies may not be sufficient. Moreover, using baseline testing may form assumptions about students that are skewed and not very useful when the teachers do not possess the specialised knowledge necessary to effectively interpret psychological test scores. The approach I advocate in my model of CE is laborious and relative expensive in terms of training, but CE being central to effective teaching and learning, it may be worth the effort and the cost.

In over 25 years of secondary school and university teaching career and more than that as a foreign language learner, the best teachers and educational managers I have come across were those who exhibited high levels of emotional and cognitive empathy. An old friend of mine once said that the worst line manager an MFL head of department can have is one who has never learnt a foreign language ; what he was actually referring to, indirectly, was to someone with low levels of cognitive empathy (how can you truly understand a foreign language student or teacher when you have never been through the process of learning a foreign language ?).

One the most important reasons why high levels of teacher cognitive empathy correlate with effective learning refers to student motivation. There is often a mismatch between how teachers expect students’ cognition to work and the way it actually does. In a survey I carried out with 150 of my students (the results of which I will publish in a future post), the activities that most impacted their motivation were those they did not feel they were ‘linguistically’ ready for. In second place they put listening tasks where speakers ‘go’ too fast. In third place doing long writing tasks in lessons. Another one of their pet hates was corrections they did not understand. All of these motivation inhibitors refer to low levels of cognitive empathy.

Another example of teacher-student cognitive mismatch refers to a widely used App: Padlet. Padlet is often praised by ‘ed tech’ MFL educators because it allows students to see what their class mates write on the wall, thereby promoting learning from that input. This presumes that all or most learners actively process their fellow students’ output and internalize it  – which, even as a highly motivated and gifted language learner I am not sure I would have done in my teen-age years. So I put this assumption to the test. I asked students from four of my classes, immediately after creating a padlet wall to which all of them had contributed to note down in their books or iPads three language items they found in their classmates’ writing which they found interesting or useful. Two weeks later I asked them to recall the items they had noted down. Guess what ? Only two of the 68 students involved in this experiment actually remembered something (one item each).

Finallly, CE can be enhanced by attempting to learn a new language every so often. A great Cognittive empathy enhancement CPD activity which I was involved in as a PGCE trainee was to attend three Swahili classes. It was a much needed reminder of how hard it is to learn a language. To this day, whenever I teach a less able group, I cast my mind back to those three sessions and this helps me approach that group with more humility, patience and understanding.


2 thoughts on “The least talked-about yet most important attribute of an effective MFL teacher

  1. This is a very good point, but obscured by the personal jargon phrase. Teachers need to match the work they give the children to what they most need to learn.


    • What I advocate goes beyond that. It is not just about matching the work teachers give to they most need to learn, but about anticipating and monitoring their learners’ cognitive responses to teacher/resources input so as to optimize learning. That is why I coined the expression ‘Cognitive empathy’ – it is about ‘mind-reading ‘ our students in order to best the HOW not just the WHAT. Thanks for your contribution, John, a very pragmatic and useful pedagogical reminder.


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