How to Activate your Students’ Minds

The Sky at Night – The difference in electrical output between North and South Korea is like the difference between minds that are bored and those that are engaged.

A mentor of mine, Dr. Hiroshi Ota, head of the English department at Komazawa Women’s University, once said, “Telling students is not enough…” and it’s true, because “telling” facts and figures just does not elicit the same type of mental reaction that students crave and deserve.

Guessing and interaction are the opposite. Both require imagination, emotion, initiative, processing, and more. Both are meaningful. Both are active.

I think if we could take brain scans of students who were merely listening to a lecture and those who were engaged in an interactive exchange of guess-work, the images may look like the difference between North and South Korea of the sky at night.

One, a portrait of extreme poverty and suffocation — the other a model of activity and output.

Guessing activates the mind, which means emotion and logic are both involved.

If you’re still not convinced that the targeted use of guessing is the most important tool a teacher has in her toolbox, guessing also shifts the conversation from what’s factually true and untrue — to what can be. When students are guessing, there is no real right or wrong answer.

Why? Because when we are guessing, it is not about being right or wrong — but about the process of generating and sharing ideas.

So, how to activate your students’ minds? The first answer is getting them to “guess”. The second is “interaction.”


Some “Guesswork” Activities

  • play a “guessing game” with your students at any time you want to introduce a key word or phrase. Give them hints to the word and ask them to guess what it could be (Japanese is okay if it is a difficult word). If you wanted to talk about “priority seats” you could give them hints like, “This is on a bus…”, “It is very nice and comfortable…”,  “We can sit on them…”, “Old people use them…”, and so on. It takes 1-5 minutes depending on time and enjoyment level.
  • Another guessing game is when doing flash card work. Sometimes words come up that all students definitely know. “Hamburger”, for instance. Instead of wasting the opportunity and just showing (read: “telling”) them the word, have them guess. Say, “Oh! I think you know this next word…It’s very delicious…It is famous in America…It has ketchup on it…” and so on. My students absolutely adore this 30 second game.
  • When doing any work with picture cards or powerpoint pictures show them a portion of the picture and have them guess what it could be. Or, alternatively, if it is a scene involving people, have them guess what the emotions of the people are. “How does he feel?” “Why?”, etc.

These are a few ideas. What ideas do you have?


  1. Great ideas! Wish I’d used them in my Halloween classes for the vocab. I like guessing games for reading. Before I introduce a text I give students some pictures and words and they try to guess what the text will be about. They build a hypothetical story before reading. Prediction. This can help with comprehension because they have their original prediction to compare the text to. Makes for good discussion.

    • Thanks Liz! I’m glad you’re on the same page as me. I think your “prediction” method would work wonders for our students when we introduce reading passages. We’re reading the “Magic Box” story now and rather than just telling them what the 3 wishes are, we are asking them to predict what they might be and share their ideas with friends. It completely changes the level of intellectual and emotional investment about the story when they are making predictions of their own.

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