Gestalt shift


20292812_10211066952922820_488799651637659270_nI remember that as children, we were mesmerized by all those optical illusions, of which the most popular was probably the one showing two faces that form a vase. But it was only recently, in this post, when I learned about the concept of gestalt shift.

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this phenomenon is Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Similarly, in the picture on the left and the one below, you can either see the image as a whole (especially if you narrow your eyes) or as a tangle of individual objects related to the theme of the image as a whole.

I think it’s fascinating how the human brain can alternate between the two choices. I’ve heard that some people find it difficult to consciously shift their perception and see one of the alternatives. I’d say that the ability to see the other perspective (or the whole picture), in the metaphorical as well as literal sense, can be achieved through practice.

20374554_10211066182943571_2702831920542085311_nI was wondering how this psychological phenomenon applies to how I perceive (my) teaching. And I’ve come to a conclusion that while I’m in the classroom, I regularly switch between two perspectives: I either see English as a subject to be taught and learned or as a means of genuine communication among human beings. I simply can’t see both at the same time.

So sometimes my students and I can be fully immersed in an activity and we don’t pay too much attention to the language itself, especially if a task/conversation gets truly engaging. But then we deliberately switch our perception and look at the language as if from the other side. In other words, while in the former case, we don’t perceive it as a something outside of us (we actually don’t notice the language at all, just the ideas expressed through it), in the latter case, we consciously dissect, analyze, and scrutinize it as if it was something material floating a few steps away; something that can be seized and absorbed – from a coursebook or the whiteboard, for example. It seems that we desperately try to capture it in an attempt to make it an internal and inseparable part of us – so that we no longer have to shift our perception back and forth …



About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to Gestalt shift

  1. M. Makino says:

    I usually get partway through an activity before realizing an alternative perspective could be taken on it, which is where I start paying closer attention to the form of students’ output and mentally cataloguing grammar or chunks to work on. I don’t know if it’s impossible to do both at once, but I certainly feel like when I’m seeing one I’m not fully seeing the other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Interesting. When writing this I also remembered your post called Translationism. I’m looking for the connection – I sense it’s there though I don’t know exactly what it is. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Gestalt Jesus | Pastor in Pajamas

  3. Pingback: The Spinning Dancer and the ELT truth | How I see it now

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