Ken Wilson’s Six ways to create the ‘Wow!’ factor

It’s that time again at Six Things, time for another guest piece. This time we’re joined by none other than Ken Wilson, author of one of my all-time favourite resource books Drama and Improvisation. I’ll quickly pass over to him here as he has quite a bit to share. It’s all worth it, a real ‘wow’ of a post.

There are moments in all our lives when we go ‘Wow!’ Some of us say it out loud. Some of us say ‘Wow!’ quietly to ourselves. Some of us just raise our eyebrows. Emotionally, it amounts to the same thing.

Imagine you bump into a friend called Eric, who started going out with a girl called Susie three months ago. The conversation might go like this:

“Hi, Eric! How are things between you and Susie?”

“Good. We’re getting married next week.”

How would you react to this news? Select your answer from the following choices, or write your own.

a)     Say out loud: “Congratulations!”

Think: “Wow! You’ve only know her for three months!”

b)     Say: “Wow! You’ve only know her for three months!”

Think: “Is she pregnant?”

c)     Say: “Is she pregnant?”

Think: “Have I got time for a coffee before I start work?”

If the answer is (c) and you’re a teacher, you may want to consider finding another job – maybe as a police interrogator.

Eric’s announcement of his impending nuptials was enough to elicit a spoken or thought ‘Wow!” in examples (a) and (b). In other words, the statement had “The Wow Factor”.

Now try to imagine the following scene: an English class full of state-school teenagers who HAVE to be there. They aren’t PLS students who have paid to be there, nor are they students in a multinational class in Cambridge, England or Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The adjective often used to describe such teenagers is ‘bored’, but that isn’t fair. They’re going through a lot of emotional and physical changes in their lives and at this point, they probably haven’t realised the ‘importance’ of any of the subjects they are being taught. So telling them that English is important because half the world speaks it is not a motivation to learn.

They’re probably underwhelmed by the material in front of them. Particularly the reading material. Apart from a lack of engagement, there will also be a sizeable percentage of the group for whom the act of reading a dense text is an ordeal.

For these students, at least for a few moments in your lesson, you have to try to create “The Wow Factor”. Make them feel the same emotion as you felt when Eric told you he was marrying Susie.

By the way, I think I’m the first one to talk about The Wow Factor in ELT, so I’m going to trademark it as my own. From now on, I will refer to it as The Wow Factor .

OK, here goes.

Generally speaking, it’s really difficult for course books to provide anything remotely resembling The Wow Factor . It’s therefore something you the teacher have to provide. Or you have to get the student to provide it. The good thing is that if you are the one who provides Wow Factor material, the students will think you’re really cool.

The simplest way to provide Wow Factor reading material is to use ‘Amazing Facts’. So before I suggest six ways to use them, here are some examples of ‘Amazing Facts’ which may be useful in one or more of the following activities.

  1. A cockroach can live several weeks with its head cut off.
  2. Your heart beats over 100,000 times a day.
  3. Coca-Cola would be green if they didn’t add colouring to it.
  4. Worldwide, more people are killed each year by bees than by snakes.
  5. The longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds.
  6. You’re born with 300 bones in your body. By the time you reach adulthood, you only have 206.
  7. A quarter of the bones in your body are in your feet.
  8. More people are killed by donkeys annually than are killed in plane crashes.
  9. A chicken with red earlobes will produce brown eggs, and a chicken with white earlobes will produce white eggs.
  10. In the course of an average lifetime you will eat about a hundred insects in your sleep, including ten spiders.

Now! Six ways to create The Wow Factor in your classroom.

1      Put Wow! facts on the wall around the room.

Before class one day, put some ‘facts’ on the wall. If you want them to  be noticed by the students when they come in, put them in big letters on coloured card.

But it works just as well if they DON’T read them when they first come in. At a certain (quiet) point in the lesson, ask the students to walk round the room and read the facts on the wall. The students do this, and when they sit down, you say: “Can you now write down the facts, please?” They will look daggers at you for asking them to do this, because you didn’t tell them that part of the task when they first walked round the room.

When they’ve written what they can remember, you can ask: “Would you like another chance to look at the facts?”

Their faces will light up with smiles and they will nod their heads. This time, they will read the facts more carefully, and will be able to write down the things they forgot when they sit down. You can give them a third chance, if you like.

There is also the chance you might see a raised eyebrow or two while they’re walking around and reading – the nearest you’re going to get to a ‘Wow!’ from most teenagers.

2      Wow! facts before you start using a new course book.

With a new class and a new course book, I like to do this: take 10 topics from the Contents page of the new book and write them on the board. It might look like this:

What do you know about …

  • great white sharks?
  • American prisons?
  • meeting people online?
  • Julius Caesar?
  • Heath Ledger?
  • megacities?
  • Ian Fleming?
  • the Amazon rainforests?
  • Australia?
  • healthy eating?

Now ask the class if they know anything about any of the topics. They will say ‘No’ of course, because they think they will have to stand up and say something. Tell them that they don’t have to say anything, they just have to write something down. Ask them to write a fact about one of the topics on a piece of paper.

Now ask the students to mingle and read other people’s facts. Finally, ask them if any of the other facts made them go ‘Wow!’

3      Wow! facts warmer

Go online to find some Wow! facts about the topic of the next unit in the book. It is almost certain that there are facts about the topic that you can find online that will impress your students. All you have to do is google the topic + amazing facts. I just did it with the first topic on my list above, great white sharks, and I found this:

The great white is the largest shark. But a relative of the great white that lived 65 million years ago, Procarcharodon megaladon, was 13 metres long! It was big enough to hunt and kill whales.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s probably more interesting than the material in the book. If you can get a modest ‘Wow!’ from the students, they may find the reading text a little more interesting.

4      Students bring their own Wow! facts. (Google homework)

This is basically the same as (3) but the students do the work. Simply give them the topic of the next unit in the book and tell them to bring a ‘Wow!’ fact to the next class. They can of course look up the facts on websites in their own language, but they must write them down in English.

5      Wow! Gap exercise

Find some Wow! facts and ask the student to try to fill in the missing words.

Here are some examples.

1     A Boeing 747’s wingspan is longer than ________________
(a historic event in the history of aviation)

2     Walt Disney was afraid of _______

3     More than 50% of the people in the world have never ____________

4     It is physically impossible for pigs to ______________

5     In Saratoga, Florida it is illegal to sing while wearing _____.

Do you know the answers? I will send them to Lindsay in a week or so!!

6      Wow! True or False

Finally, do one of the above activities, but add one or two untrue ‘Wow!’ facts. Student have to work out which one/s they thing is/are false.

So how and WHERE do we find Wow Factor material? Very simple, just google Amazing Facts, and you have more Wow! material than you could wish for. And if you want material about a specific topic, do as I did and google Amazing facts + the topic.

Happy Wowing!

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Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 3:17 pm  Comments (25)  
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  1. Ken,

    As a tech person, I often get involved in discussions along the lines of ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘what does that have to do with learning?’

    As a Brit I love the notion of trivia.

    As a tech person, I often get told that the ‘wow’ factor is worthless and short-lived.

    So (to quote you in a recent comment on a blog comment I made), where’s the learning in this kind of thing?

    Gavin

  2. Your ideas are always very creative Ken. I like these.

    To respond to Gavin’s comment, we’re talking about teenagers here. Sparking some interest is value enough. This is just a personal opinion, but much of teaching kids is letting them have some fun even if the game or activity isn’t that connected to learning something specific. It creates a positive atmosphere in the class and gives them a break, which will in turn get them in the mood to learn something (we hope:P)

  3. Nick,

    It’s those kinds of explanations which are used to trivialise the use of technology in class: it’s all ‘wow’ and fun, with no learning.

    All this has to spin both ways – if one can have fun with ‘wow’ then it’s also acceptable with technology. Doesn’t mean the entire foundation of technology use in class is built on the concept of fun.

    I do think, however, if you need a few bits of trivia to get kids interested in a textbook, then the textbook is worse than useless and might as well be binned. If the trivia you can hunt down in Google is more interesting than the coursebook, bin the coursebook and move in with relevant, interesting content you can find online.

    Gavin

    • Very interesting point. I think you’re right Gavin that it has to spin both ways. Generating motivation is a key factor, I think we all agree – be it via wow facts or wow technology. I personally like both. I also like wow coursebooks, although there are a lot less of those around…

    • I understand where you’re coming from with the resistance you obviously get about tech in the class and I agree that if people ask these questions about tech the same criteria should be taken with any other activity or application. It must spin both ways as you say.

      Actually, I usually catch quite a bit of flack for saying it’s ok to have time in the class that doesn’t have a specific learning goal.

      The tech issue aside, what do you think about the “Wow factor”? Is it ok to have activities in the class with a focus other than learning something new?

  4. Lindsay,

    Yes – find me a ‘wow’ coursebook and I’ll send the first prize round to you post haste. I’m not saying coursebooks are necessarily bad – they’re a very fine security blanket for many people, they pay (as we have noted elsewhere) to get people like you and me to conferences, etc.

    But really, here, we’re talking about trivia – and, as a technologist, I’m constantly being told my life is built on a foundation of ‘wow’ and that this is bad.

    As I say, goose… gander… this is nothing new. What also is not new is the fact that many learners (and I’m talking the average learner of English in the contexts within which I’ve worked) will have no knowledge of this kind of material, precious little interest in it and will not see what it has to do with them…

    The same can not be said, for example, of a mobile phone…

    Gavin

  5. Hello all…

    thanks for the discussion starter, Gavin, and thank you Nick for the response, which is pretty much word for word what I would have written.

    My only addition would be the teacher satisfaction factor – TSF. I know it’s a populist way to go, but then, I don’t know any other way.

    This Wow! thing all started for me on one of my Drama Plus summer courses, when some of the teachers were bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t get their teenage students, with the core attitudes I describe above, to relate to ANYTHING they did in the classroom.

    Speaking was the hardest, of course, but getting them to read anything was a trial, because they didn’t like reading (I think that masks more complex reading difficulties, but that’s for another discussion).

    Someone in the group mentioned the fact that she had found it easy to persuade her students to read if she started by telling them something memorable, different, wow-ish, based on the same topic. She gave a couple of really nice examples.

    When the other teachers asked her where she got her material from (this was mid-90s, google not an option), she said she collected facts from the ‘Believe it or Not’ column in a magazine that she read.

    She said that the students seemed more interested in reading material in the book after they’d done this pre-activity.

    Gavin, it’s a bit simplistic of you to extrapolate from what I said that course material is so bad that a single ‘wow’ fact puts it all to shame. However, saying that did what you wanted, which was start a discussion.

    I understand Jeremy Paxman is thinking of leaving Newsnight – I think you’d make a great replacement!

    PS The teachers on the summer course were from about eight different countries by the way, so it was clearly a common problem.

  6. Och Ken,

    I’m saying that I spend half my life being accused of pandering to a ‘wow’ factor and that if you can get away with it sometimes, so can I. As I also pointed out, this does not mean that either of our approaches is based on a foundation of sand…

    As for simplistic, I shall quote the guy in reception in the hotel in Spinal Tap: “I’m just as God made me, Sir”. Given that most of my life seems to involve engaging in reductionist arguments based on spurious personal attitudes, it’s small wonder that I’m reduced to the same thing…

    ‘Wow’ is fine… but it won’t make a dull, one-size-fits-all global coursebook any more suitable or pallatable to an audience in X, Y, Z country. It’s a quick hit, and – as all those who don’t buy into technology keep telling me – short hits aren’t worth a fig.

    So sure, entertain them… not a problem. But let’s not make too big a thing out of it. ‘Wow’ is fine, personalisation is good, anecdotes are interesting and (occasionally) inspiring, but all of this is a small cog in a bigger machine.

    Trivia about the world is fun, sure – no beef with that. Anecdotes of my funny experience in Guatemala are also good – but the thing is, those people who do leave class and go on to do something with their English are going to get little succour from my knowledge of obscure Kansas fishing laws or delightful stories about the day the Turkish couple invited me to their wedding because I was hanging round in their hotel like a bad smell.

    I like fun, I like a bit of wow, but I also like authenticity, and once we get beyond the pretence that the average language class is ‘authentic’, we might get somewhere.

    Tell Paxman I’m available…

    Gavin

  7. Gavin!

    you know about obscure Kansas fishing laws??

    Wow!

  8. Ken,

    Glad to have given you a ‘wow’ moment – though I fear the ‘learning point’ will have been minimal 🙂

    Gavin

  9. Personally, I like the trivia ideas Ken suggested but I also agree with Gavin that the Wow may be short lived and that the students may not be simply interested. It’s still worth trying and a careful selection of facts, depending on where the students come from, is crucial.

    As far as the ‘learning point’ is concerned, what’s wrong with the students getting some information about the world? Isn’t that learning as well?

    Besides, it’s very easy to combine trivia with practising grammar. Using facts about ridiculous laws is great for introducing modal verbs, for example. When you want to teach prepositions, you may choose facts containing prepositional phrases as in ‘Walt Disney was afraid of…’ or ‘Ken Wilson is interested in…’ 🙂

    You may even ask the students to write things about themselves that nobody knows about and later make a trivia quiz out of that. An alternative would be playing Find Someone Who.

    Anyway, that’s l_missbossy’s contribution to your discussion 🙂

    Anita

    • I love the crazy laws modal idea. You know there are a bunch of great videos for that on youtube?

      I agree with you and was thinking the same thing. Learning can be pulled out of wow facts or you can compile wow facts with a common grammar point or whatever.

  10. Wow, nice post and interesting discussion. Just to add quickly that I saw Ken presenting some of these very points live in Cardiff and Paris – without reference to the factor – and both times were definitely very “wowish”. I really feel that those special moments (training/classrooms/conferences wherever) which spark strong positive emotional responses help activate the brain and therefore lead to personal understanding and creativity. It’s the sum of all those that makes up the bigger picture indeed. The more, the merrier, no?
    There was a lot of thinking outside the box, curiosity, authenticity and memorable learning experiences for me and the teachers around me in both those talks so it’s nice to read about them here and thumbs up to Ken for his “WOW Factors” and they way they can relate to ANYTHING . There are no short hits in that, are there Gavin? Not easy to explain in a Six Things post though.

    Ken, I’ll let you know what WOW facts my students bring to class next time 🙂 Would be interesting to compare these across cultures/ages/techno users and perhaps we can use this blog comment function do just that?

    Valentina

  11. Ms. Bossy,

    I strongly feel that learners should have a chance to widen their knowledge beyond the pure ‘English’ of the ELT classroom, but I fear that useful information is more… ummm… useful than knowing the wingspan of a 747 or the fears of Walt Disney. The latter may win you points in a pub trivia competition, but frankly, life and classroom time are too short to be wasted on this kind of thing.

    Sure it’s good for a cheap laugh and to take your mind off the execrable coursebook you’ve been stuck with, but it ain’t life survival skill material.

    Gavin

  12. WOW – this thread appears to have been hijacked…

    It’s a great post, Ken, and anyone who has actually spent real time in classrooms with teenagers (most of whom are forced to be there) will be able to relate to it. Half the battle in these classrooms is getting the students positive and willing to talk… about anything!

    I confess to having used the WOW factor (or something like it) in Asian EFL contexts, and I swear to God that I was still a committed and professional teacher who managed to teach the students a lot of great (useful and survival-related at times) communication skills. The WOW stuff raised heads and eyes, put some light back into them, and gave me a decent crowd of attentive young people who were ready to learn something – and to give the class a shot.

    Keep on WOWING Ken!

    ~ Jason

  13. Jason,

    I suspect it’s a question of what you feel makes a ‘wow’. I’d take a video from YouTube, interesting article from the web, chance to have a conversation with another real teenager in another country (via, say, Skype) over the wingspan of a 747 any day…

    We’re probably all talking about the same thing (virtually all my teaching experience has been with teenagers) but from a different perspective.

    I simply suspect that the lasting usefulness of a decent piece of video or a synchronous cultural exchange (both of which fit into ‘wow’ territory) is greater than knowing how many times a second a humming bird beats its wings…

    Gavin

    • When you put it that way, I’d have to agree. I hadn’t really compared the two. I don’t think Ken’s post was against tech in any way, though.

      I agree that the wow factor is probably bigger and more useful using some tech. I think teenagers find the more techy stuff more interesting these days. It’s more meaningful to them. Still, it doesn’t mean we can’t use the non-tech stuff here and there as well.

    • I’d say it’s a question of what the learners feel makes a WOW, and teachers could be encouraged to seek that/those out. Articles and YouTube clips don’t wow many of today’s teenagers the way they did 4-5 years ago, btw. Sometimes you need something completely different, and not an overtly language goal-driven item dressed up as WOW through the application.

      I’m also pretty sure Ken’s WOW suggestions didn’t preclude the ones you suggest here, but possibly did aim for simple things that can be accessed by teachers in a wide range of contexts.

      In the end, the goal is to create something that captures attention, becomes memorable, and inspires discussion. How far out of the box you have to go with that may depend a lot on the context and the resources available. WOW comments like Ken’s worked well for me in Korea, where YouTube clips didn’t so much (many teachers had already done this to death – it wasn’t special anymore), and they were far easier to get ready and implement than a live exchange with teenager(s) in another part of the world.

      My favourite WOW applications were actually riddles. You know, the ones like “There is a man tied to a chair in a cabin in the woods, covered with blood… Let’s find out what happened, though note I can only answer your questions with YES or NO.”

      You might write this off on similar grounds, but my teenage learners loved it, and could spend a whole lesson engaging with this. The fact their attention was fixed on the teacher – a person – with whom they were now ready to genuinely engage, was also a very welcome change to the weary, drill-like crapshoot of yet another coursebook unit.

  14. Nick,

    Actually I didn’t want to make this about technology – merely about where the wow factor comes from, and indeed if there really does have to be a recognisable wow factor at all.

    Ken quite rightly points out in his list of activities that technology will probably have to provide learner-generated ‘wows’, but my question is why? Why make them find obscure ‘wows’, and what’s the point? The reason I mentioned technology is that it’s exactly this ‘lightness’ that purveyors of technology are accused of peddling. Or, to put it in the words of another prominent online person, where’s your pedagogy?

    Ken says that coursebooks find it difficult to provide the wow factor and I agree entirely with that. Never met a coursebook that inspired that reaction in me or my learners…

    So how do we wow? well, I just think that we wow not in concetrating on weird facts connected to coursebook units, but in finding things that really mean ‘wow’ to our learners. This means moving beyond the jaw size of the great white shark to meaningful ‘wows’…

    What engages your learners – what do they ‘wow’ at outside the classroom, and how can you incorporate that into the classroom to capitalise on the ‘wow’ whilst pointing them in the direction of some meaningful learning and language practise.

    So really, this is not a tech/no tech discussion for me. It’s about moving beyond the trivia of what might excite me to the minutia of my learners’ daily existence that makes them get out of bed early and do stuff.

    Gavin

  15. Ken and Gavin both make the point that coursebooks find it difficult to provide the wow factor. So what’s to stop someone putting those ten facts that Ken mentions above into a book? Would that be a coursebook with a wow factor? Isn’t it amazing then that nobody has ever put these kinds of facts in coursebooks if they are so wow? Or is it that the minute you put something into a coursebook people (learners and teachers) are very quick to dismiss it and it therefore loses its wow appeal?

    Just a random thought. I can’t decide if this is a tech/non tech discussion (I hope not), a book/non book discussion or a trivia/non trivia discussion.

  16. My guess is that the things both Ken and Gavin mentioned are WOW because they are not in the coursebook.

    If students were to watch videos and use technology most of the time (I’m not sure whether that’s your point Gavin), wouldn’t they get bored too?

    Maybe then, going back to using coursebooks would be a WOW?

  17. Lindsay,

    I’d say not much can stay ‘wow’ when you put it in a coursebook because it has to have mass appeal and mass utility. Wows are probably much more personal and of the moment…

    Which is the point I was trying to make (Anita), that it’s really neither here nor there how long a giraffe’s neck is or how many teeth a combine harvester has – the wows should speak to the wowees. This is not the domain of technology at all (in fact note that Ken mentioned tech first, not me!), nor to a single technique, but to finding out what wows the wowees and integrating it into one’s teaching.

    As Anita points out, eating eggs every day quickly gets boring…

    Gavin

    • Very good points, Gavin – totally in agreement!

  18. Hi Ken and wow! for a super wow blogpost!!!
    You always have fantastic and very useful ideas for the classroom. I am sure that students of all ages, from very young ones up to adults, would like all this trivia and would be very motivated to speak. Let us not forget that even adult students seek fun in their lessons and need something to “unlock” themselves from their hesitations to speak. I am definitely using these ideas in my classes and thank you very much! I am also looking forward to the answers to the quiz! Vicky

  19. I wonder if there’s a danger of ‘Wow!’ inflation here where our audience, sorry, our students get blasé about facts and so we move onto something more extreme to get the ‘Wow! factor on a progressive scale:

    1) interesting facts
    2) small animals you can pet
    3) son et lumière
    4) animals that can kill, maim or otherwise leave you very cross
    5) hologram of Jar-Jar Binks
    6) a celebrity you can pet
    7) a celebrity in a room with an animal that can kill, maim or otherwise leave you very cross

    And they still wouldn’t do their homework.


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