Clever Hans

What is the best way to teach? Or does the method matter less than the teacher, who’s free to choose among many methods?

Teachers – and people in general – tend to keep doing things the way we have always done them, especially if it appears to be working. “I learned Spanish using the tried-and-true, textbook method,” we say. “And look at me! I’m the teacher now! Not too shabby, eh? Señora Franklin must have been doing something right. I’m the living proof!”

In this way, successful language teachers are very like Wilhelm von Osten. Von Osten was a German mathematics teacher and amateur horse trainer in the early 20th century, who was convinced that he had managed to teach his horse, Hans, to do math problems. Von Osten amazed crowds by asking Hans complicated questions, such as, “If Thursday’s date is the 8th, what is the date of the following Wednesday?” Hans would then dutifully provide the correct answer by stamping with one hoof the requisite number of times: 14. Thunderous applause would ensue, and much was written and speculated about the intelligence, not only of Hans, but of animals in general.

But careful examination by the psychologist Carl Strumpf showed that Hans was doing no mathematics at all. Rather, he was reading the body language of the person asking him the question, responding to subtle cues that the stamp he had just given, which Hans himself was incapable of counting, was the correct one. When he got this cue, he stopped stamping. Hans could get the questions right 89% percent of the time – provided the person asking the question, be it von Osten or anyone else, knew the answer, and would thus unconsciously give cues to stop at the appropriate time. When the person asking the question did not know the correct answer, Hans could only provide it 6% of the time, helplessly stamping away, watching for a signal that could never come.

Von Osten, meanwhile, was completely unaware that he was giving Hans any cues; he truly believed that he had taught a horse to understand the German language, calendars, subtraction, addition, and fractions. Indeed, even after seeing the evidence Dr. Strumpf provided, von Osten never believed that Hans’ genius had been debunked. He continued to exhibit the horse around Germany, to the applause of admiring thousands – wilfully unaware that his complicated questions were superfluous to the entire exercise, in strict denial of the fact that Hans could have “answered,” even had he been “asked” in Chinese. 

If we clear away all the nonsense that von Osten was doing, we realize that he had simply taught Hans to stop stamping when his trainer showed him that it was time to do so. An accomplishment, to be sure – but one not nearly as complicated as von Osten believed it to be.

Might we be doing the same in language instruction? Might teachers also be continuing to insist on unnecessarily complicated methods and techniques, filled with noise and useless busywork, while, in truth, something far simpler, under the surface, is actually causing our students to speak and to understand? I propose that we too could abandon much of the nonsense we’ve been doing, if we could only recognize that our students are learning something far simpler than we’re making it out to be, using cues and tools that teachers often don’t even know they’re employing.


Teachers are successfully teaching students to speak second languages; we are doing something right. But how do we determine which parts of what we are doing are the ones that truly count? This is a difficult exercise, due to all the sound and fury that has filled up most classrooms over the years. But a thought experiment might be helpful: What if we asked ourselves which are the basic things that all successful language teachers have in common? 

It is a difficult task to discover what binds any such diverse group together; nearly everything about good teaching applies to many, but not to all. Languages themselves, for example, in their spectacular diversity, can only be said to have the most basic elements in common – knowing the tendencies of three, four, even ten languages will not entirely prepare you for novel structures in the eleventh. We must first eliminate the many sorts of superficial things that are not common to all languages before trying to root out the mysterious commonalities. 

Similarly, we can attempt, in our thought experiment, to rule out the things that are not universal in successful teaching, and then consider what is left. It would be much the same as the process for weighing smoke: Let the smoke, the object of our search, escape, but examine the residue, and measure that which we are not looking for. If we subtract the weight of the ashes, from the weight of the original cigar, we find the difference between the two: The weight of the smoke.

Our ash heap of language instruction would contain nearly every specific method, curriculum, and trick of the trade we can think of, because not everyone who has abundant success teaching or learning second languages can possibly have them in common. Flash cards, workbooks, verb charts, and ball-tossing conjugation games are not universal. Nor are weekly or daily quizzes, tests in general, compositions, choral repetition, recordings of native speakers, dictation exercises, TPR, TPRS, internet-based conjugation exercises, rhyming mnemonic devices, target-language films, extensive grammar explanation in the students’ first language, a steadfast refusal ever to explain the grammar – No single strategy or tool can possibly be ubiquitous. No matter which handy trick we consider, someone, somewhere has gotten by perfectly well without it, and would dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

But imagine taking a poll of a huge group of successful language students – those who were so successful, they became language teachers themselves. We would not ask them what they remember going on in their classrooms; this is a fool’s errand, since eventually, all such specificities will turn to ash. Rather, we would ask: What do they remember about their teachers, about their experience in the classroom? How would they categorize them?

At the most basic level, we would likely find that successful students think of their language classes, and the teachers they had, as having been very “good”. But for these students to have made it as far as they did, to have had the success that they did, we would also find them using much more revealing words. Words such as “fascinating”, “intriguing”, “challenging”, “interesting”, “inspiring”. “I was always learning something new”; “I always felt pulled in and interested”; “Things were always happening.” 

“It was fun. We always seemed to have fun.” 

Some teachers quizzed weekly; others quizzed daily, while others never quizzed. Some made their students do extensive pair work nearly all the time, while others never did, not once. Some spoke exclusively in the target language, while others didn’t; some leaned heavily on film, others on music, others on grammar and linguistics. Some used the same text book for thirty years; others changed constantly; others never used one. But all of them, over the years, brought many students to proficiency and passion in the things their teachers showed them. Not every day, and not with every student – but their success, judging by their having inspired our selected group of language teachers, is inarguable.

In those key moments that this incredibly varied group of their most successful students can best recall, I am certain that those teachers were each teaching what they loved. And, perhaps more importantly: They taught it in the way they loved to teach it. 

Here, surely, is the smoke we are looking for. This love of the language and the discipline survived the journey from teacher to student, and kindled the same passion there. Left behind, we can scan over a vast and varied heap of ashes, consisting of a thousand methodologies and approaches. None of them matter any more than any other – they are tools that some artists picked up, and others spurned. They aren’t what matters. What matters is the passion and the fire that those great teachers communicated.

Why on Earth should we do anything but focus on kindling this fire in our students, as it was kindled in us, producing the all-important smoke? Why should we bother to worry about, or argue over, which pile of ash was the “best”?