Motivation Begins

A few years ago I researched and wrote a paper on motivation and Web 2.0 tools and opened something of a personal can of worms. Back in graduate school, motivation research (Gardner and Lambert were still running the show) had been the…I’m torn between writing “least satisfying” and “most pointless” here…part of the program as it was then. L2 motivation as an area of study was woefully undeveloped, hopelessly skewed by the context of the early research, and ridiculously ignorant of motivation in other areas, particularly the business world  with its sometimes eerily similar situations, such as getting people to try harder to improve performance.

Leap ahead to the sort-of present, across years of people trying to remodel Gardner’s original lump of clay into something new, something more in line with current fashion in the field. The field has now taken a new direction, largely through the efforts of Dornyei and his emphasis on the learner’s view of their “self” (or should I say “selves”?). This is certainly an important and pedagogically useful development. But I am still nagged by the feeling that the picture is so very incomplete.

Last summer I attended a presentation at JALTCALL’s 2009 Tokyo conference by Jozef Colpaert, who apparently gave a similar presentation at a CALICO conference earlier that year. I don’t want to disagree completely with what he said for his presentation was very interesting, and I don’t want to sell him short, but his talk did raise some issues for me. At one point, one of his slides had this message:

The best way to start realizing pedagogical goals is to detect and respect personal goals.

Hard to disagree with at first glance, right? Well, actually I’ve come to find that it is not so hard to disagree with as one gets caught up in the confusing and multi-dimensional world of motivation.  For two things have a great–and under-appreciated–effect on motivation and the changes people make in their lives to advance toward the realization of goals: automaticity and habits (with the difference between the two being awareness). And in the horse/cart or cart/horse world of motivation, this lack of attention may be serious.

But let’s start with a quibble. The word “detect” is unclear in the quotation but as explained it meant asking learners to assess their motivational stance as indicated by their personal goals. This is problematic for me because it falls into the same trap that the Gardner and Lambert findings did: it assumes that learners show up in classes wearing their motivations like tattoos. In my experience, learners are much less than totally “fixed” in their motivational states and an action of some sort is needed to get a reaction from them that we can observe and begin to see what their motivational state is and assess what subsequent adjustments we should make. Good teachers, interesting content, and novel media  can all influence motivation. I was at a low level high school in Kanagawa last week, the kind of place where almost any teacher would (and would be allowed to) preface his lack of success with an explanation of the type of learners/school he was in. And yet the teachers I met were running successful lessons. Students were learning, frustration levels were below the radar, and everyone seemed fairly…well, happy. So I think starting by asking may sometimes be the wrong approach.

But what I really want to point out today is a lack of acknowledgment of habits and the unconscious, two things I think need to be taken into account.  

The unconscious is more mysterious so let’s start there. Say a researcher stops you and asks you to read a little story about a guy named Joe and to give your opinions/reactions/feelings about Joe. Sometime during the early part of the interview the interviewer fumbles with his papers and asks you–for the briefest of moments–to hold his cup of coffee. You read about Joe, an average guy, and answer the questions as best you can. This easy experiment has been done many times, with the same results. The variable that is changed is only the temperature of the coffee in the cup: hot or cold. And the results? The people who held the warm cup tend to be significantly more positive about Joe.  That means that at some unconscious level, people’s feelings toward Joe were influenced by the temperature of the coffee in the cup, and no one answering the questions had an inkling of awareness of that. John Bargh, an expert in the field of automaticity, states this:

Most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance (American Psychologist, July 1999, pg. 462).

People are often not really aware of why they feel the way they do or do the things they do. Certainly this has implications for motivational approaches. But it is not the only elephant in the room. There are also habits, those nasty “residues of past goal pursuits” (Wood and Neal, 2007, pg. 844). Habits, quite simply and with often flagrant disregard for  goals, promises and resolutions, block our attempts at change. You know this to be true; or else you would be slimmer, healthier, better read, waste less time on video games, and more efficient at this very moment. Habits, even when there is an awareness of them, are  problematic for educators because they are notoriously difficult to change due to the way they are etched into our brains along with people, places, or things. Only an active and sustained effort can bring about change and this may  mean making a large-scale intervention, including making changes to one’s environment.

So if the current EFL view of motivation is too limited, is there any better approach available of f the shelf somewhere in another field? In their 2003 book The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr and Schwartz, who work with professional athletes and business people to help them improve their performance, outline a comprehensive plan for changing motivations and behaviors by focusing on improving  physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. It sounds a little New Age as I describe it here (and as it is described on back cover of the book) but I think that it is an approach that may be useful to compare and contrast with the current EFL approach.  There are probably others as well that I am not aware of. It’s enough to say at this point that a wider view is needed on a very complex subject.

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