Motivation in Practice: Richard Lavoie’s The Motivation Breakthrough


As an EFL teacher, my main early exposure to motivation research and theory was the work of Gardner and Lambert and others on integrative motivation. Years later, what came to surprise me most about motivation was how little attention had been paid to other theories of motivation that were and are so dominant in the other fields, specifically Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination Theory. And one thing that irritated me about those early language motivation theories was that they had very little to offer the classroom teacher who found himself in an”unmotivated” class. Of course, like any teacher I soon found out that any class can be motivated and what I did with and for my students had a big impact on how they reacted to the subject.

Richard Lavoie in his new book The Motivation Breakthrough takes Maslow’s theory as a frame of reference he uses to organize some of his ideas, but his focus is firmly on best practices for improving motivation for teachers, parents, schools, and caregivers. His background and area of specialty is children with learning disabilities (currently the Schwab Foundation for Learning, and before that Riverside School in Mass.) and he approaches the topic as an educator working under the assumption that all kids have some sort of learning problem and teachers and parents need to be much better informed and employ much more effective techniques to get learning to happen.

In the early part of the book, Lavoie challenges many of the “myths” about motivation, those common assumptions and practices that are found in practically every home and school. There is really not much that is new here, and nothing really that is radical. But read along and realize how much of what used to be “true” is no longer thought to be so. Get reminded here that kids are never ever unmotivated or impossible to motivate; that motivation is usually pretty constant, not a fickle state caused by circumstances beyond the control of teachers; that rewards and incentives are only motivating in the short term; that competition is best done against ourselves and can lead to “chronic success deprivation” for many kids–hi there Japanese junior high schools!–when employed as a program-wide tool; and that punishment is not motivating because kids tend to associate the punishment with the punisher and not the behavior. Well, if this paragraph makes you feel that your toolbox has just been upended, you really need to read the book. And if you agree with everything he says, then you will likely find the rest of the book a veritable shopping mall of practical ideas for going about the business of getting learners to go about the business of learning. Of special note here is his discussion on learned helplessness and why it is important to break the cycle and how it can be done. Anyone who has worked with less successful learners will find inspiration here.

For much the next part of the book, Lavoie summarizes his views on motivation. It would be nice if he cites research supporting his claims more–but he doesn’t, except quoting mentors–and he even says at one point that his own view goes against established research. But this is a book born out of experience and you will find his ideas and his justifications interesting, and more, transferable to classrooms. And that is where he starts, with the characteristics of a motivating classroom. He says that the motivating classroom has or allows for these things: creativity, community, clarity, coaching, conferencing, and control. This is a nice list, a good summary of the last few decades of research into teaching and learning too. But it is a preface to the central argument of his book: there are significant individual differences in motivation and  no single approach can touch all your learners. He identifies eight “forces”, of motivation, motivating needs that are modified from Maslow. They are gregariousness, autonomy, status, inquisitiveness, aggression, power, recognition, and affiliation. He then lists six motivational approaches that can be used effectively with learners of different need types: projects, people, praise, prizes, prestige, and power.  Of course, making use of these requires really knowing your learners, and as the book continues and he covers each of the six approaches it becomes clearer and clearer that they will mostly work with small groups of learners when  instructors are able to know and profile their learners. A profiling questionnaire is included in the book, but the results will only be practical if teachers are free to bring some individualization into their classrooms. For those who can the next section gives lots of wonderful ideas to try.

The last section of the book covers non-classroom issues that impact in-class performance. The role of parents, homework, chores, talking to kids about learning disorders are all dealt with. As someone who has read a few books covering Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, I can tell you that I found this book to be refreshing and insightful. Lavoie’s mentor-like approach inspires confidence . He then deals with teachers encouraging parental involvement and finally with advertising techniques that teachers can bring to their lessons, a chapter that doesn’t really fit into this part of the book but is interesting none the less. Much of the material is better covered in books such as Made to Stick or Why Don’t Students Like School?.

For teachers and parents looking for a good book to help understand what motivation is and what can be done about it, this book is well worth reading. Rick Lavoie’s experience and wisdom are well worth the price of admission here. If you are looking for something more academic you won’t find it here, but for a reassuring voice and lots of practical ideas this book is very valuable. Though not about language teaching situations and not about Japan at all, this book still has enough to get the reader thinking and it offers some nice justification for adapting approaches generally to allow for more autonomy, more success, and more support.

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