Employing the Five-E System of Teaching and Learning

Sep 22nd, 2014 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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Patrick T. Randolph
Photo by DB Family Photography



The dream is not impossible.

I have always believed that the best education we can offer our English language learners (ELLs) is one that inspires them to pursue an enthusiastic yearning to learn while simultaneously encouraging them to engage in a lifelong journey of self-enrichment. In addition, my own teaching experience has taught me that the more our students can contribute to the class, the more profound and meaningful their learning is. In short, our job is not merely to teach the necessary language skills to our students, but it also entails motivating them to want to learn and helping them to do this on their own.

Such a task, one might argue, is much too quixotic. Why not just mount a horse and chase windmills? But I would answer that it is not only realistic, but it is our primary function and commitment as ELL instructors.

How, then, can we do this? The answer lies in what I call the Five-E System of Teaching and Learning (see McPherron & Randolph, 2014). This system focuses on incorporating the following “E” elements in every classroom: Emotion, Examples, Energy, Exercise, and Euphoria. If we can include these simple tools in our classes, we will be better prepared to meet the true needs of our students. Let us look at the importance and motivational effect of each one.


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“Rational thoughts never drive people’s creativity the way emotions do.”
—Neil de Grasse Tyson
American astrophysicist

One of the most influential elements for learning and one that adds to the enhancement of any classroom is the use and presence of emotion. In terms of our brain’s chemistry, a number of positive and helpful neurotransmitters are released during elevated emotional states; among these neurochemicals are acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Jensen, 2008). These particular neurotransmitters are highly important because they have a great deal to do with how we remember and process new information (Medina, 2009). So, if we want our students to truly learn the material, whether it be a vocabulary item, an idea from a reading, or a concept in grammar, we must add the power of emotion. In Medina’s research, he has found that “the brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect” (2009, p. 83).

My own students show an overwhelming positive response to emotion—both in and outside the classroom. For the past two years I have conducted a survey about emotions and learning. It is not surprising that 100 percent of my students claim that without emotions involved in the learning process, they simply do not retain the information. The leading emotions that seem to have the biggest effect on learning are fear and joy (Randolph, 2013a).

One example of how I use emotion is a component of my Head-to-Toe Method for Vocabulary Acquisition. I always ask the students to give an emotion (joy, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, or a variation thereof) for each lexical item we study. For instance, let’s say we are studying the idiom, the best of both worlds. I ask, “What emotion do you feel best describes this idiom?” In the past, students have responded with “joy,” “bliss,” or “feeling on top of the world”—all items learned earlier in the semester, and all equally related to the positive essence of the term and its definition.

Another significant tool I use is the ever-important presence of facial expressions. Any time I teach a lexical item, I also try to add emotion to the situation with a facial expression. This, on the face of it, might not seem so important—but it is.

Our students have a very complex system of mirror neurons working in their brains. These mirror neurons allow them to mentally simulate or “act out” every single thing they see another person do (Iacoboni, 2009). So, if I teach the term the best of both worlds and do so with a smile on my lips coupled with euphorically raised eyebrows, my students’ brains will simultaneously be simulating these facial expressions. This connection between teacher and student and the neural mimicking involved will help the students encode (perceive and convert) and store the information in their long-term memory.


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“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
—Mark Twain

In the introduction, I made the claim that the more a student can contribute to a class, the more invested he or she becomes and the more he or she learns. In this sense, we can say that the best education is one that is rich in student insights and contributions.

Having students offer examples for the content being studied immediately engages them in the lesson and the skill. Let’s take our idiom—the best of both worlds—as an example. Once the students study and understand the definition, register, and intuitive feel for how the term can be used, I have them come up with as many original (student-created) example sentences as possible. This will have a number of positive results:

  1. First, it, as above, immediately engages the students by their using the terms;
  2. Second, it helps them become risk takers, a process vital for language learners;
  3. Third, risk taking also involves making mistakes, so students learn a genuine feel for how to and how not to use the terms;
  4. Fourth, this activity allows the students to play with the terms and consequently become comfortable with their use;
  5. Fifth, the repetition of using the terms in a concentrated period will help the students begin to transfer the terms to their working and ultimately to their long-term memory; and
  6. Sixth, they will most likely use autobiographical examples, making an immediate connection between their personal lives and the terms.


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“We must make learning fun.”
—Plato, from The Republic

John Medina begins his chapter on attention in his book Brain Rules with the neurological maxim: “We don’t pay attention to boring things” (2009, p. 71). From this it logically follows that if “we don’t pay attention to boring things,” we can in no way learn in a boring classroom environment. And this is why I think a classroom with a high energy level is essential for both teachers and students.

The neuroscience community has discovered that the effectiveness of the moment of encoding will ultimately determine whether or not the new information will begin its journey to the long-term memory (Medina, 2009). In essence, if there is no energy or excitement at the moment of learning, there is a great likelihood that the fact or concept will not be encoded.

So, what does this mean for teachers? How can we cultivate our class energy? I have found that paying attention to the following helps increase and maintain a positive energy level in the classroom:

1. A healthy body posture and the use of meaningful gestures;
Note: The students’ mirror neurons will keep them engaged and connected to literally each moment of the lesson (Randolph, 2013b).

2. The awareness of the volume, energy, and emotional tone in our voices;
Note: Depending on the tone and energy of the instructor’s voice, students will act accordingly. The powerful system of mirror neurons also reacts to sound as well as sight (Kohler et al., 2002).

3. The use of eye contact and eyebrow movement;
Note: “The eyes are a great bridge of energy for the teacher and students, and that energy and excitement may last a lifetime in the learners’ memory” (McPherron & Randolph, 2014).

4. The use of appropriate facial expressions;
Note: These will help in eliciting emotions from the students and also usher forth important neurotransmitters for learning (Ratey, 2002).

5. The presence of nurturing an intrinsic excitement and personal interest in the topic; and
Note: The more the teacher shows enthusiasm for the topics and skills covered in the class, the more the students will generate an interest in the class (Jensen, 2008).

6. The nurturing of trust in the classroom.
Note: A safe and trusting environment will elicit the neurotransmitter oxytocin. This, in turn, will help create an effective level of learning in the classroom (Horstman, 2009).


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“Given all the activities happening at once, physical performance probably uses 100 percent of the brain. There is no known cognitive activity that can claim this.”
—Eric Jensen

John Medina (2009) has referred to “physical activity”—of any kind—as “cognitive candy” (p. 22). And, as the above quoted research by Jensen shows, exercise is pivotal for a healthy learning environment.

I cannot emphasize the importance of this “E” enough. For a classroom without exercise is like living a day without smiling—you can do it, you will survive, but the internal workings of your brain, heart, and soul will suffer—perhaps more than you can ever imagine.

The benefits of physical exercise are literally endless and could in no way be summarized in this limited space, but let us look at three major ones here. First, according to Ratey and Hagerman (2010), physical exercise can help students learn in three specific ways: (1) It enhances focused attention to the material in question; (2) It motivates neurons to link together, consequently forming more pathways for learning; and (3) It aids in the process of creating new baby neurons—at any age. Thus, as long as you are active, you can create new neurons for learning via physical activity.

Second, exercise creates a whole host of amazing neurotransmitters and proteins that help in the learning, attention, and memory departments; for example, exercise produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (a great protein for the production of new neurons); serotonin (wonderful for a focused brain); and norepinephrine (important for mental activities such as attention and motivation).

Third, exercise has been proven to help language learners. Winter et al. (2007) found that students learn vocabulary much faster after exercising than they do before exercising. In my own classrooms, I use exercise multiple times during my lessons. Since incorporating exercise in my classes, I’ve seen quiz and exam percentages steadily increase, and I’ve noticed an overall sense of happiness and sharp alertness among my students. (For a detailed list of a few activities I use, please see the ITBE Link, 41,[2]; http://www.itbe.org/v_newsletters/article_9203783.htm).


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“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

It is no secret that happy students learn better, and research studies do indicate that there is a clear link with happiness and learning in the brain (Spitzer, 2011). My question is, then, if learning and happiness are so intimately intertwined, why do we push the “let’s make learning a serious matter” and “fun and learning stop in elementary school” philosophy so often? If we look back on our K-6 years, learning, for the most part, was fun. Why can’t we change that to K-college?

This is why I believe that encouraging an element of euphoria in the classroom is crucial—if we really do want our students to learn. And having a happy teacher usually means having content, cheerful, and eager learners in the classroom. “Teachers who smile, use humor, have a joyful demeanor, and take genuine pleasure in their work generally have high-performing learners” (Jensen, 2008, p. 98). And we must also remember that when the teacher is in a euphoric state of being, his or her students, via their complex mirror neuron system, are simulating each and every moment. So, it really is the case that when a teacher is happy, his or her students are happy, too.

Last, we cannot forget that humor in the classroom is also a key ingredient for fostering laughter. And, physiologically speaking, the more laughter, the more oxygen produced in the brain—another great motivator and enhancer for focused attention and learning.

Concluding Remarks

I am of the belief that our students should take something away from each of our classes. If not, then we are doing them a grave injustice. As mentioned in the introduction, the more a student invests in his or her education, the more he or she will learn. The Five-E System of Teaching and Learning will help our ELLs attain this objective. And the beautiful reality is, even if you use just one of these Es, you will help a learner spark the desire to learn and nurture his or her curious mind.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to patricktrandolph@yahoo.com.

Patrick T. Randolph teaches at Western Michigan University, where he specializes in creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He lives with his wife, Gamze, daughter, Aylene, and cat, Gable, in Kalamazoo, MI.


Horstman, J. (2009). The Scientific American day in the life of your brain. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York, NY: Picador.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kohler, E., Keysers, C., Umiltà, M. A., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2002). Hearing sounds, understanding action: Action representation in mirror neurons. Science, 297, 846-848.

McPherron, P., & Randolph, P. T. (2014). Cat got your tongue?: Recent research and classroom practices for teaching idioms to English learners around the world. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Randolph, P. T. (2013a). I feel, therefore I am: Exercising the emotional brain. The ITBE Link, 41(3). Retrieved from www.itbe.org/v_newsletters/article_11904403.htm

Randolph, P. T. (2013b). Mirror neurons in the ESL classroom: The power of imitation, attitude, and gestures in learning. The ITBE Link, 41(1), 4–9. Retrieved from http://www.itbe.org/docs/Spring_2013_ITBE_Link_corrected422.pdf

Ratey, J. J. (2002). A user’s guide to the brain: Perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2010). Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London, England: Quercus.

Spitzer, M. (2011, May) Learning brings happiness. Retrieved from www.humboldt-foundation.de/web/newsletter-5-2011-5-en.html

Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F. C., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., Krueger, K., Fromme, A., Korsukewitz, C., Floel, A., & Knecht. S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 87, 597-609.

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