Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mesmerizing teaching (and pronunciation teachers)
The topics of  attention salience and unconscious learning have come up any number of times over the course of the history of the blog, beginning with one of my favorites on that subject back in 2011 on Milton Erickson. In part because of the power of media today and the "discoveries" by neuroscience that we do, indeed, learn on many levels, some out of our immediate awareness, there is renewed interest in the topics--even from Starbucks!

A fascinating new book (to me at least) by Ogden, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism, summarized by Neuroscience News, explores the history of  "Mesmerism" and a bit about its contemporary manifestations.(QED. . . . if you were not aware that it is still with us!) Ogden is most interested in understanding the abiding attraction of purposeful manipulation or management of unconscious communication, attention and learning. One fascinating observation, from the Neuroscience News summary is:

" . . . that one person’s power of suggestion over another enables the possibility of creating a kind of collaborative or improvisational performance, even unintentionally without people setting it up on purpose."

Get that?  ". . . collaborative or improvisational performance . . . created "unintentionally" Are you aware that you promote that or do any of that in your classroom? If you are, great; if not, great, but is that not also an interesting characterization of the basis of interaction in the language teaching classroom, especially where the focus is modeling, corrective feedback and metacognitive work in pragmatics and usage? In other words, suggestion is at the very heart of instructor-student engagement in some dimensions of the pedagogical process. Unconscious learning and relational affinities were for some time contained in Chomsky's infamous "black box," but are now the subject of extensive research in neuroscience and elsewhere.

And there are, of course, any number of factors that may affect what goes on "below decks" as it were. Turns out there is  (not surprisingly) even a well-established gender dimension or bias to unconscious learning as well.Ya think? A 2015 study by Ziori and Dienes, summarized by Frontiers in, highlights a critical feature of that cognitive process keyed or confounded by the variable of "attentional salience."

In that study, "Facial beauty affects implicit and explicit learning of men and women differently", the conscious and unconscious learning of men was significantly downgraded when the task involved analyzing language associated with the picture of a beautiful woman. Women, on the other hand, actually did BETTER in that phase of the study. The beautiful face did  not distract them in the least, it seemed, in fact to further concentrate their cognitive processing of the linguistic puzzle.

Now exactly why that is the case the researchers only speculate. For example, it may be that men are programmed to tend to see a beautiful woman more initially as "physically of interest", whereas women may see or sense first a competitor, which actually sharpens their processing of the problem at hand.  It was very evident, however, that what is termed "incentive salience" had a strong impact or at least siphoned off cognitive processing resources  . . . for the boys.

There are many dimensions of what we do in instruction that are loaded with "incentive salience", fun or stimulating stuff that we suppose will in essence attract attention or stimulate learners to at least wake up so we can do something productive. Pronunciation instruction is filled with such gimmicks and populated by a disproportionate number of former cheer leaders and "dramatic persona." The combination of unconscious connectivity and "beautiful" techniques may actually work against us.

In haptic work we figured out about a decade ago that not only how you look but what you wear can impact effectiveness of mirroring of instructor gesture in class. The fact that I am old and bald may account for the fact that students find me easier to follow than some of my younger associates? Take heart, my friends, the assumed evolutionary advantage of "beautiful people" may not only be waning, but actually be working against them in the pronunciation classroom at least! 

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