Suggestopedia: The Theory and its Practical Implications
Lonny hated school with a passion… and went into education with a vengeance. Originally Canadian, Lonny runs exuberant language and teacher training seminars worldwide where he develops techniques to speed up learning by communicating directly with the unconscious mind. He has been at the core of Suggestopedia since 1978 and has written EFL curricula for audiences in America, Europe, the Middle East and China and worked there. Lonny’s ambition is to help create a new culture of communication where people inspire and nurture each other, thereby enabling humanity to transcend existing norms and lead more fulfilling lives. www.lonnygold.com
My encounter with Suggestopedia in 1977 was a momentous one. And it all began on an elevator. I had come to observe a Suggestopedic French class in a government training facility in Ottawa. The Canadian government was using the Suggestopedic method to teach French to English-speaking government employees. On the short ride from the ground floor up to the sixth floor I was able to witness two English-speaking civil servants from the western Prairie provinces having an argument in French. “I am a Louis XV dresser and my legs are much more beautiful than yours!” attacked the first man. “Yes,” replied the second, “but I am a Louis XIV four-poster bed and you can’t imagine what goes on, thanks to me, at night!” That did it. I hadn’t yet observed my first Suggestopedic class but I was already sold on the method!
After my first hour and a half of classroom observation, my mind was in a state of excited turmoil. Eighteen different activities in ninety minutes and I hadn’t seen the time fly by. So many of the precepts of teaching I had taken as a given had been contravened and even violated and the penny suddenly dropped: I now had a clear understanding of why traditional teaching would never work for a large segment of the population.
What is it?
Suggestopedia was originally created by medical doctor and psychotherapist Dr. Georgi Lozanov. Based on his principles, a team of philologists, led by Aleko Novakov, created a methodology for foreign language teaching, wrote textbooks for this and ran Suggestopedic courses. The outcomes of the teaching process were reported to the Bulgarian government and a decision was made to launch a Scientific Research Centre of Suggestology in Sofia in 1966, which became the Scientific Research Institute of Suggestology in 1971. UNESCO recognized Suggestopedia as a superior teaching method in 1978.
The aim of Suggestopedia has always been to activate the reserve capacities of the mind by creating a stimulating environment where students feel safe enough to let go and take risks without any fear of criticism or ridicule. The name Suggestopedia, of course, comes from the notion of suggestion, and Dr. Lozanov defines suggestions as all the micro-messages of weak intensity which a person picks up and senses without realising it. It is, however, this barely perceptible information that determines a learner’s self-image, attitude towards a subject and the likelihood of achieving a happy outcome.
To my mind, there are four main principles that characterise Suggestopedia:
- No shame or guilt must be experienced by learners when errors are made
- Every piece of information must have emotional meaning and pertinence
- Important information should be largely hidden so that it is only perceived by students peripherally
- Assimilation must precede analysis
A brief comment might be in order for each of these principles:
1. Fear, shame and guilt are instilled in students by teachers who are afraid of losing control. These have never helped anyone learn anything. If fact, they inhibit learning as fear results in the release of adrenaline and cortisol and these prevent blood from flowing to the neocortex. This mechanism is key to our survival. If a bus is coming at you, the important thing is to get out of the way, not to finish thinking through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Blood flow is needed to the legs, not to the brain. When people feel they are in danger, they stay on their guard in anticipation of the next threat to their safety; this state of alertness prevents them from relaxing enough to absorb new knowledge.
2. Long-term memory is receptive to feelings and emotions, typically joy, sadness, fear, anger and surprise (which is often several different emotions at once). Powerful experiences will trigger these emotions and will be retained more easily than abstract information. A good teacher will therefore imbue important knowledge with positive and “pleasureful” meaning that learners will enjoy thinking back to. (Which do you remember more clearly: Your last summer holidays or the administrative work you did last Tuesday?)
3. More surprising is the fact that direct perception – unless it is surprising or shocking –
only makes it to short-term memory and this memory operates like the blackboard in a traditional classroom: as soon as one lesson ends, the new teacher erases what was on the board previously, to make place for new information relevant to the new lesson. If I ask you what you were wearing yesterday or even three days ago, you will probably be able to remember. If I ask you about what you were wearing on 17 November, however, there is little chance that you can recall this. Short-term memory generally lasts for about three and a half days and then, according to current neuro-scientific thinking, either gets repackaged by the hippocampus for long-term memory or begins to fade into oblivion. It is at this point that long-term memory kicks in and takes over. The implications for Suggestopedic teaching are twofold: A) Everything must be simultaneously taught for both direct and indirect perception (examples below), and B) The teacher must first organise what will figure in the lesson and then scrupulously hide it – usually by distracting students with other less essential material. It is when learners see things out of the corner of their eye that knowledge has the best chance of making it directly to long-term memory.
4. Analysing material students have not yet integrated puts the emphasis on how complex the material is and how difficult the task ahead is. This could well put a fear of failure and psychological block in place. Analysing things that have already been assimilated, on the other hand, gives students tangible proof of how intelligent they are – which is always gratifying and reaffirming. It is critically important to do things in the right order!
Teaching in general and language teaching in particular
Most Suggestopedic classes use a text as their starting point, and in language classes this text will probably take the form of a dialogue, with twelve or fourteen characters. Each student will be given the role of one of these characters. These personae will act as a symbolic mask for learners; those with negative self-image will allow themselves to succeed at something without this success disrupting their sense of who they are. Protected by their new fictitious identity, they feel free to succeed without betraying other people’s negative expectations of them, which could result in losing them as friends. The new identities serve a further useful function: Each persona is designed to embody a sound which is typical of the target language, and this reduces the need for tedious pronunciation exercises. An example would be “Peter Reeves, of Thirteen Regent Street in Leeds”, who just happens to be an “Engineer”.
The page layout of a language text is special. On one half of the page you have the target language and on the other half, just opposite it, you have the mother-tongue translation. This is helpful for weaker learners and gives “official confirmation” to stronger ones of how good they are.
The text is then recited to a recording of Classical or Romantic music, written between 1750 and 1850. As this style of music is a succession of different moods or feelings, the teacher is emotionally coding every utterance, thereby packaging information for long-term memory. The students, meanwhile, are following the text visually and this caters to the needs of short-term memory. In the hope of reinforcing this process, I personally have instituted the practice of having learners highlight words and expressions they find the most interesting during the concert presentation, thus personalising their texts.
A sequence of activities
An Encoding Session then ensues. The teacher goes through the text giving explanations and weaving associations. For example “Monday” is the day of the Moon, “breakfast” is the meal when you break your fast, many words in English that begin with “s” are French words where the “é” has been replaced by an “s”, etc. This segment should have the magical quality of telling children a bedtime story – and if well done, it should be as unforgettable and trigger a childlike sense of wonder.
About 70% of a Suggestopedic course will be a quick succession of activities involving games, theatrical sketches, music and the arts in general – and activities will range in intensity from the meditative to the boisterous. There will be lots of physical movement, and variations in sub-group sizes, giving the feeling of an ever-evolving organic process. There will also be preparation phases, where the most recent grammar and vocabulary are woven together into sketches and skits for the performers to take ownership of the new material and for classmates to enjoy.
The Relaxation concert is read to complex, polyphonic High Baroque music, made up of three or four voices. As the rational mind cannot take in so much interwoven input, it lets go. This brings about a change in cerebral activity, with brain waves going from lower Beta waves (18 – 23 Hz), where people are productive, to Alpha waves(8 – 12 Hz), where they are receptive. This brings about a drop in body temperature, a reduction in heart and pulse rates and a slowdown in breathing. This is a state that precedes falling asleep, and can be accompanied by hyper-sensitivity; it is particularly conducive to deep learning.
Phase Encirclement is another notion central to Suggestopedia and it refers to the fact that in different physiological and emotional states, the same input will be experienced in different ways. But these states are in constant flux. And this is where Pavlov’s theory of “paradoxical states” comes in. This theory claims that in certain states, strong stimuli can induce weak responses (through inhibition) and weak stimuli can spark strong reactions, (through amplification - particularly in states of hyper-sensitivity). This “inversion” is key to Suggestopedia, where material should be presented not only explicitly but also implicitly, i.e. where information comes to us peripherally, through the corner of the eye, in a barely noticeable way. In this way, the flux in states of consciousness and likely distortions in memory have been planned for by playing down what is important and putting the accent on what is fun and surprising. Hence, teaching material is directed to different levels of consciousness.
Who is it for?
Out of some 3000 students that I have had over the past 42 years, Suggestopedia hasn’t worked for two of them. One was a computer engineer who believed that success should only be a reward for hard and laborious work, and he felt that learning effortlessly was akin to cheating. He experienced my classes as an attack on his moral values. And then there was a very nervous lady who wore lots of bracelets on her arms and went into an absolute panic when encouraged to relax. The Baroque relaxation concerts were a real ordeal for her – and for everyone else sitting near her – as she shook and trembled and sounded like a bus or street-car clanging away for everyone to get out of the way.
For me, Suggestopedia would have been a life-saver in my school days. As a kinaesthetic learner, I was in a constant dilemma: Should I keep my body in motion, stretching and squirming to the great irritation of everyone else? Or should I focus all my energy on sitting still, which required all my attention, and left me with no spare capacity to actually learn anything. One teacher complained about my never doing things the way everyone else did. “When I tell the class to scratch their left ears,” he told my father, “Everyone raises their left hands and scratches their left ears. Lonny raises his right hand and reaches over his head to grab hold of his left ear.” Sadly, this was 1952 and I was 5 years old. And I was unable to explain my need for cross-lateral body stimulation to harmonise the activity of my two brain hemispheres.
(Later in my hapless student career, I would systematically lean back on my chair and rock back and forth on its two back legs. This was a sure-fire recipe for driving any teacher mad. And they never understood that I was totally on their side! I was just trying to set in motion the fluids of my internal ear to stimulate my brain and help me learn faster.)
Frontiers of freedom
We could postulate that in this society, where every computer click is tracked and recorded, and where cameras trace our physical movements without our knowledge or consent, our freedom is actually severely limited and is often just an illusion. If this is so, the last frontier of real freedom may well be the unconscious mind and the imaginative resources it can set into motion. It is on Suggestopedia, and on similar approaches that address the “whole person”, that we should be placing our bets. The way forward can only be to develop learning systems that make life a truly exciting and fulfilling adventure and allow us to become what we were meant to be, in accordance with our deepest aspirations.
Lerède, Jean, “Les Troupeaux de l’Aurore”, Les Éditions de Mortagne, Boucherville, Québec, 1980
Lerède, Jean, “Qu’est-ce que la Suggestologie ?”, Privat, Toulouse, 1980
Lerède, Jean, “Suggérer pour Apprendre”, Presse de l’Université de Québec, Sillery, 1983
Lozanov, Georgi, “Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedia”, Gordon and Breach, New York, 1978
Saféris, Fanny, “Révolution dans l’Art d’Apprendre”, R. Laffont, Paris 1978.
Gold, Lonny, “Suggestopedia: Activating Student’s Reserve Capacities”, appeared in m“Forum” a USIS publication in April 1985.
Caro, Anton, “Suggestopedia for Every Parent and Teacher” - © Label-The Letters
Foundation (in Bulgarian) ISBN 978-619-154-257-4 - For an automatic English translation, contact me.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
Suggestopedia: The Theory and its Practical Implications
Lonny Gold, Canada /France