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Influential ideas on my approach to ELT

The sound that rocked the movie theatre (Pulp Fiction)

Fiona Mauchline wrote a post on Henrick Oprea’s blog that ended with two small challenges, the latter of which has had me doing some thinking.  What ideas, people and events have influenced the way I approach ELT?  Do I associate outside influences with my teaching philosophies?  Why don’t I have instant answers as when asked about my favourite musicians?  Shame, really.  Influences deserve due recognition, especially when on such a colossal part of my life.  Through a lot of contemplation, I’ve started to piece some together and shall introduce them and how they have an an effect on my teaching in a series of posts.

Influence #1: ideas : Pulp Fiction & Memento et al.

Being a teenager and young adult in 90s, movies of that era had a profound effect on my ideas with regards to learning and understanding.  This is not to say that it’s only then that great films were made, but it’s then that I was at my most impressionable as a learner and as such, they are forefront in my psyche as helping to shape how I approach creativity–something that inevitably spills over into my teaching.  It was around this time that two movies in particular, Pulp Fiction (1996) and Memento (2000), blew me away.

Neither movie is told in a linear fashion.  Pulp Fiction jumps around the story through scenes pieced together out of order, leaving the viewer to make connections to previous scenes, determine how they relate to each other chronologically and how the characters are connected in a initially seemingly disconnected plot.  Through a masterfully cut up plot, this unfolding puzzle kept my interest piqued and maintained my Gen X attention span.  The characters also are atypical–the criminals and “bad guys” have relatable personalities.  They don’t just shoot and go.

Can you visualise this scene as you watch?
A photo tells a thousand possibilities (Memento)

Memento took a similar, but also vastly different approach. It too is a puzzle, but its story is revealed through short chunks of plot ordered together in backwards chronology.  This keeps the viewer building on what they previously saw, guiding them, step by step,  into discovering how everything works together.  With one 10-minute scene followed by 10-minutes that takes place just previous, this style also carefully replicates how the main character, who has short-term memory disorder, pieces together events in his quest to avenge his wife’s murder.  Not only is your brain constantly trying to make sense of what you see, but you are figuratively identifying with the main character’s experience.

You can question everything. You can never know anything for sure.

So, what exactly did I get from these movies (and a few others like it) of the time with regards to the approach I take towards lesson planning and teaching?

a) Learning isn’t linear. Just like how the story lines were presented, students don’t learn and then move on to the next thing.  Learning requires making connections to previously practiced language.
b) Mixing up how you do things can build student interest and keep their attention.
Having a formulaic schedule day in and day out might look good on paper, but it really prevents the opportunity to mix skills together.  Plus, there’s a fine line between routine and rut.
c) Guide students into discovering.
If I tell my students everything explicitly, they aren’t learning.  They are memorising.  Giving them clues to help them discover ideas and connections and rules themselves, eventually ending up at the desired conclusion, is much more effective.
d) Put yourself into your students’ place.
It’s amazing to be forced into the main character’s point of view.  It makes the movie so much more meaningful.  Similarly, I need to keep my students in my mind when lesson planning and try to look at everything through their eyes before concluding that it’s a perfect lesson.

Coming in a future post, influence #2: people:  The Smiths.  Maybe between now and then, you can give your influences some thought.  Let me know if you do.

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Naomi Epstein

A big “HEAR HEAR” to your conclusions though I can’t say these movies influenced my journey to the same conclusions (funny, just saw Memento for the first time last week!).

Interesting question you posed about the source of the influence – reminds me of Willy Cardoso’s recent post on the influence of your autobiography on the way you teach

Perhaps your use of the movies is a metaphor you related to well because of your beliefs in these approaches / attitudes that you held based on your life experience?

Great post!


Perhaps we could also say that, just like in Memento, we teach our students something and they forget it ten minutes later. :p

Seriously though, two great films and insightful reflections/influences you drew from them. I also love the non-linear story telling style they employ so well. Also, going through the acts of self-discovery, realisation and conctruction of your own knowledge makes for powerful learning.

Lovely post – I’ll try to think of something similar (although most of the movies I see these days are animations my son wants to watch!)

Ann Foreman

Hi Tyson,

Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.




Thanks a lot for this, Tyson. I must confess I hadn’t really thought about this, which is a big reason why it was such a joy to read this post. Nice A/B/C/D advice, too.

[…] raised by fellow bloggers. What have been the influences on the way I teach (Tyson Seburnt’s “Influential ideas on my approach to ELT”)? Has my own autobiography as a learner shaped my teaching (Willy Cardoso’s “Off-track […]

Marisa Pavan

Hi Tyson,

It’s a really insightful post. I totally agree about the fact that students need to make connections with previously learned language. It’s also true that it’s necessary to grasp your students´attention to help them learn. As I’ve described in one of my posts in my blog, my approach to ELT is flexible. I do my best to adapt my approach to a certain group so that it becomes meaningful for them.
Hugs from Argentina,

Marisa Pavan

You’re right, Tyson! Films have always been highly inspiring for me.

[…] post of Tyson’s that I found particularly interesting was Influential Ideas on my ELT approach.  Take a look.  It might surprise […]

Joe Pereira

Hey there – nice to see Memento getting some ELT love 🙂 It’s my favourite movie (tied with The Matrix and The Breakfast Club) and I made a website about for language learning for my Masters degree. Take a look:

The colours and layout are horrible and it may have some broken links – but the idea was to make it using Dreamweaver and HTML programming from scratch, so it served its purpose. It is mostly based on the incredible Hypertext document at I still think there were some good ideas in there.
It’s nice to see Memento getting some ELT love – but I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?

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