The ten pillars of effective teaching and learning


In this post I will concern myself with what I regard as the ten most crucial principles of effective teaching. In many years of teacher training, mentoring and lesson observations, most of the problems I have noticed vis-à-vis learner engagement and fulfilment in lessons relate to shortcomings in one or more of the areas listed below.

The reader should note that the principles below refers to ten fundamental learner needs that must be met for any effective teaching and learning to occur and presumes that teachers are proficient in subject-specific competences (e.g. knowledge of the subject) and emotional and cognitive empathy. Hence I will not concern myself with subject-specific teaching strategies.

Although I will briefly touch on some of the obvious implications they have for foreign language instruction, these principles can be applied to any curriculum area, as they are pretty much universal. As a matter of fact, in my view, every educational manager, too, should heed them in their dealings with their staff.

  1. Certainty – every human needs a sense of certainty in their lives. It is the most fundamental need. We need the certainty that every basic need of ours is going to be fulfilled; we also need a sense of stability and safety; structure and routines. So do students. They also need to trust that every time they are in your classroom they will learn. Hence, your credentials and reputation as a teacher; the structure given by your routines; the sense that your teaching is effective; the certainty that you will correct their work; the trust they have in your subject-specific competence; that you will be able to control the class and be firm when needed; all of this will be very important. They must also trust that you will be there for them when they struggle and willl actively listen to their problems.
  1. Variety – Eventually, most people get bored of certainty and of the same old routines. So will your students, even if they are aware that your teaching style, strategies and routines do enhance their learning; they will need variety, especially the younger ones. Consequently, teachers need to alternate wisely long and short focus; individual and group work; fronted teacher talk and learner-to-learner interaction; cognitive challenging and more ludic activities; etc. Teachers need to exercise cognitive empathy, here, and understand when and what kind of variety is needed.
  1. Challenge and risk-taking – once attained a level of relative security, humans need a degree of risk and challenge in their lives in their quest for fulfillment and enjoyment. Some people more than others. Similarly, students need challenge and risk-taking in their lessons through activities that test their problem-solving, adaptive and creative skills. Many ineffective MFL lessons I have observed in 25 years involved either insufficient or excessive levels of risk-taking; hence cognitive empathy is crucial here, too.
  1. Validation / Significance – Every single one of us needs validation of the genuine and meaningful sort. Often one sees teachers dish out inflated overly emphatic praise which means little to the students, especially the smarter ones, as it sounds kind of fake. Students are very ‘street smart’ these days; they know when the comments you make about their performance are genuine and honest or just another means to ‘buy’ them over. They are also very aware of what they are good or not good at.
  1. Uniqueness – Humans need to feel significant but also unique. This is especially true of adolescents, who are going through the very troublesome process of forming a social identity and strive for independence. Teachers must always be mindful of this issue and ensure as much as possible that their validation of a given student refers to traits which are unique to that student or that make them feel special. This recognition of individual uniqueness should be ‘distributed’ evenly amongst the class members if done publically. I prefer doing it privately at the end of a lesson or in the corridor; it sounds more genuine, personal and, more importantly, it has less embarrassment potential for the student.
  1. Connection with others – Humans need to feel emotionally connected with others. Our students, are no different. Teachers should foster an atmosphere of ‘connectedness’ in the classroom by modelling empathy, compassion and other emotionally and socially intelligent behaviours and attitudes; by establishing a classroom ethos which emphasizes rewards for helping and appreciating others; by staging learning activities which promote ‘connectedness’ (e.g. the following ones at:–adj-s-6369598 ); by regularly involving students in group-work.
  1. Growth – Without growth, stagnation sets in; stagnation eventually leads to frustration and even, in some cases, to depression. Disaffected MFL students are often those who feel they are not ‘growing’ linguistically, intellectually or morally. A student needs to leave the classroom feeling s/he has learnt something new every day. This is why – in the MFL classroom –  extensive intra- and inter-lesson recycling of the target vocabulary and grammar is so important. This is also why fluency should be prioritized over accuracy in several learning contexts in order to foster communicative growth in less linguistically accurate and ‘academic’ learners. It should be noted that praising students excessively to boost their morale and inflating their grades to encourage them will not work; students ultimately know if they are ‘growing’ or not.
  1. Fairness and integrity– Humans also need to feel they are being treated fairly. The perception that a teacher is unfair is one of the most common causes of learner disaffection. Being fair means fair grading, fair amount of classwork and homework, appropriately pitched challenge, fair punishment and reward. Perceived teacher integrity and fairness are a must.
  1. Emotion / Passion –We are all sentient beings. Efficiency and efficacy in your teaching will not get you anywhere with your students without emotion. This must not be always necessarily of the positive kind; negative emotional feedback is sometimes crucial to give a student a badly needed wake-up call. Two types of emotions are, in my view, important catalysts of learning. One is the feeling that your teacher really cares for you and wants you to learn and be successful in their subject; the other is the feeling that s/he is passionate about every single thing s/he teaches, not simply the language but every topic, grammar structure, vocabulary item, task…every little thing that happens in the classroom. When passion exudes from every little thing you do or say, you will command learner attention, appreciation and respect. Notice that this crucial catalyst of learning is rarely found on lesson observation checklists; yet is one of the most important determinants of student motivation.
  1. Goals and focus – Human behaviour is goal-orientated; we must have a feeling that whatever we do is occurring in pursuit of an achievable goal that is relevant to us. We also need to stay focused on that goal to be successful. Teachers must select achievable goals for their learners and make them as clear and as relevant as possible to them. They will also reiterate those goals often enough to keep them in their students’ focal awareness and ensure that every activity they stage is explicitly related to that goal.

Someone may ask what happened to motivation and enjoyment. Why they are not on the list. The answer is that, in my belief and experience, if a teacher applies the above principles – plus a little bit of humour here and there – s/he WILL bring about motivation and enjoyment. The students WILL want to go back to their lessons for more.

In conclusion, there is surely much more to effective teaching and learning than the above list indicates (e.g. communication skills, organization, classroom management, ICT literacy). However, in my view, any succesful teaching and learning – not just in the MFL classroom – cannot categorically happen unless the ten learner needs discussed in this post are met. You can be the most charismatic, competent, ICT savvy and entertaining individual – you will still not get anywhere, especially in a tough inner city area state school.