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Whether it is the ADDIE model (see my article in ETp Issue 113) or Service Design Thinking (see above Issue of ETp), by borrowing theories and frameworks from other non-education industries can help us expand our horizons and grow as teachers.

In my previous blogpost, I looked at five business theories that can be applied to the language classroom. Here are another five useful theories from the business world that can inform us and change the way we look at what we do.


6. Return on Investment (ROI)

When a company makes an investment, whether in the form of money or staff hours, they do it expecting to gain something in return: monetary profits, improved skill set and productivity, good will and trust, and other environmental and social benefits. ROI is a performance measure that allows the efficiency of an investment to be compared to the efficiency of other investments.

Learning point: 

What has been invested into attending our language classes? Course fees? Time? Energy and effort? Who are the ones paying for the course fees? Who are the stakeholders? What do they expect to get out of the course?

What is the ROI for them?

We often talk about an improvement of general language skills as a vague concept, and we are also aware that different students learn different things at different rates. However, drawing up specific short- and long-term goals with our students can visualise their learning journey in a concrete way and help them see their ROI more clearly.  While many of us lack a reliable way of measuring the effectiveness of language training (grammar tests and vocabulary gap-fills don’t count), we can focus on communicative outcomes such as ‘I am now better able to check in at the airport in English’, ‘I am now more confident with responding to telephone enquiries in English’, or ‘I can now effectively make small talk with someone I have never met’.

Many freelance Business English trainers tend to look at their learners as ‘clients’ and rather than just as ‘students’, and when we start to do this, we immediately see a shift in our perspective, and strive to demonstrate that our stakeholders’ investment is quantifiable and has been worthwhile.


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7. Unique Selling Point/Proposition (USP)

A concept prevalent in advertising and marketing, a product/company’s USP is what distinguishes it from its competition. It is the benefit that it can give the customer that other products/companies cannot offer.

Sometimes, the USP of a product/company offers such specialised benefits to a specific target market that it would be advantageous for it to target a niche market with specific needs.

Learning Point:

What is your USP? What differentiates you from other teachers? What differentiates your school from other schools?

By identifying and developing your USP, you can better serve the needs of your students and help them achieve what they want/need to achieve. This also lets you map out a path for your own professional development, allowing yourself to delve further and deeper into an area of teaching and learning that you’re interested in.

In order to determine your USP, consider the following: Is there an area that you are exceptionally good at? An area that you are wildly passionate about? Is there a gap in the market, a need for something that could be valued by potential clients? Is there something you can do to make your student’s learning experience better?

Also consider: Who is your target market? Do you have a niche that you should be honing in on and developing your specialisation in?


8. Curse of the First

Also known as the Handicap of the Headstart, this theory suggests that having a headstart might not also be a good thing.

Organisations and civilisations that are quick to become economically successful might succumb to complacency and all sorts of excesses. Those who are first to adopt a new piece of technology might soon find themselves stuck with an outdated product that is expensive to upgrade while others are coming in at a cheaper price for the upgraded product.

Learning Point: 

We say that there are not many true beginners in the world of English language learning these days. Most of our learners come to us with prior knowledge of English, many having studied English at school. Some come with a bigger headstart than others. In many ways, this is an advantage for the false beginner because they come equipped with the basics of the language: with fundamental knowledge of sentence structure, grammar and some useful lexis.

However, like a house, if the fundamentals are sitting on a shaky foundation, this headstart could work to their disadvantage.

Students who have been told that American English is the ‘right version’ might have strong feelings about other varieties of English.

Students who have been told that they are visual learners might resist any teaching that is delivered in an audio fashion.

Students who have been introduced to the modal ‘will’ as English’s future tense might find it easier to revert to ‘will’ regardless of the different ways of talking about the future in English.

Students who have been told time and again that they need MORE GRAMMAR might falsely believe that that is all there is to language learning.

We should always be aware that prior knowledge could create complacency in the student. And if the student had been exposed to an English education that is focused for example on reading and writing, or on a grammatical competence rather than communicative competence, it could lead to certain expectations of what their English class should be focusing on.


9. Management Styles

The discussion on different management styles began as early as the 1930s when Kurt Lewin proposed his three styles of decision making: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire.

Since then, many other authors have suggested different ways to look at management styles, including frameworks proposing that a good manager should adjust and adapt to the management style that best suits the employee and the task.

Integrating the different theories on management styles, we could summarise it in the following three:

a) Autocractic - Top-down, one-way communication, with manager holding the power for all decisions. A paternalistic version of this management style might see more effort to hear what the employee has to say but the leader is still seen as ‘father figure’. 

b) Consultative/Persuasive - More attention is given to the employees and their opinions and input are taken into consideration. However, the manager still holds the power to make the final decision.  Managers with a persuasive style might be good at making employees feel that they are being heard and convincing employees to accept a decision he/she is keen to make.

c) Participative/Consensus - An employee-centred approach where communication is multi-way and the team sets their own goals and make the decisions. The manager might mentor or coach employees that need guidance or assistance.

Learning point:

Look at the above management styles again and substitute the words ‘manager’ or ‘leader’ for ‘teacher’, and the words ‘employee(s)’ for ‘student(s)’.  Consider your own management/teaching style. Do you change your style depending on the student and the task at hand? Do you have a prevailing style? What are the advantages of your style and what are the disadvantages?


child with binoculars


10. The Hawthorne Effect

Named after the experiments that took place in a factory in Hawthorne, Chicago, the Hawthorne Effect referred to the changes in the workers’ productivity when attention was paid to their overall needs and working conditions. It was later suggested that the increased productivity could simply be due to the fact that people work harder when they think they are being observed. Being research subjects, the workers did not feel that their productivity was being assessed or that their jobs were at any risk, yet the very act of observation led to them trying harder.

Learning point:

Our students’ performance could potentially improve if we pay attention to their overall needs and the learning conditions in the classroom. But we could also increase motivation by offering opportunities where they become aware that they are being observed. We could have students write emails to real people, use Skype to get students talking to people in the real world, invite guests into the class, combine classes and team-teach with another teacher, have students produce a video that will be uploaded online e.g. on Youtube and watched by the general public.

Simply knowing that their output would be seen by someone outside the classroom could have an impact on the students’ performance and resulting confidence. We have to however bear in mind that the nature of the observation should be non-threatening and serve to drive productivity and not hinder it. Students should not feel that any risk comes with underperforming and should be at ease with the observation taking place. You can do this by letting the students know in advance about the observation and the purpose (e.g. to expose them to English used outside the class) and help them understand that their performance will not be judged in any way.

While there are many differences between the business world and the English classroom, there is a common underlying interest in human psychology and motivation in both fields. We could derive significant benefits by broadening our horizons and learning from theories that are not strictly ELT-related, and considering how we can apply them so as to lead our students towards success in their learning.


compass pointing to leadership