Engagement and Motivation (Including Your Own): Dave Burgess Explains How to Teach Like a Pirate

One of the main forms of teacher training is the Super Teacher approach. Accomplished teachers give demonstrations for large groups of regular human beings who happen to also work as teachers, in order to inspire, demonstrate certain activities, or otherwise give hints for improved performance. It is a common approach and one that, as an EFL teacher trainer I can tell you, rarely seems effective.

Why? Because Super Teachers tend to be viewed as super humans with super specific skills that cannot be replicated by mere mortals: “It works for them, but I could never do that / or my students would never do that.” And because in a Super Teacher demonstration, we usually see a cherry-picked activity and have to imagine the process that led to it. It appears as a magic trick of an activity, the development of which is similarly left to the imagination.

book cover

Well, Dave Burgess is a Super Teacher, and a magician BTW, and he is well aware of these problems. I first heard about his “high-energy, interactive, and entertaining” workshops and presentations (take a look at this one, for an example), before ordering his wonderful, inspiring, little rollick of a book, Teach Like a Pirate. Yes, it did elicit the usual Super Teacher response, but it is much much more. The section on asking questions to explore your own creativity and maximize engagement and learning is worth…well, gold. He stresses (and then later shows) that ideas come from “the process of asking the right types of questions and then actively seeking answers.” It is a process that all teachers should be asking for everything they do and every activity they introduce. And the unit that focuses on presentation skills (“the critical element most professional development seminars and training materials miss”) is spot on. It is amazing to me that so many teachers do not see themselves as presenters, even though they stand in front of people most of the day, trying to get and keep their attention.

The book is roughly in three parts. The first one explains some general concepts and approaches and gives some examples. He talks about passion, enthusiasm, rapport, positioning material, the necessity of enthusiasm. It is a mishmash of theory and experience and made me nod politely in places and enthusiastically in others. The second part is the practical meat and potatoes of the book. He goes through a series of hooks that can be used to increase engagement. The beauty of this is not only in the nice collection of hooks, but in the way they are presented first as a series of questions: How can I gain an advantage or increase interest by presenting this material out of sequence? is the first of three questions for The Backwards Hook, for example. These questions engage you, allow you think up what you are already doing, and explore some things you might not have thought about. You’ll find many things you can’t or wouldn’t try, especially as a teacher in Japan who goes into the students’ room: food in the classroom, some of the decorations and costumes, and (in my case) dancing, crafts, and singing. But most could and should work, depending on how you envision them. A lot of them are pure gamification. Although Mr. Burgess is a history teacher, his ideas and the questions he poses are sufficiently adaptable for language teaching as well. The last part is clearly meant to be motivational, to push you to take the leap and try some of these things in your own classrooms now that your are fired up a little. As he says on his blog: Inspiration without implementation is a waste.

He has a website and a blog, but I did not really find them worth spending time at. It might be better to follow him on Twitter or watch some of his presentations on Youtube. Or better yet, keep pondering the questions in the book. The answers you come up with will decide the ultimate value of this Super Teacher’s book.

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