Doing What Must Be Done

Motivation–what the hell is it exactly? Well, it can be explained in terms of identity, general predispositions, or opinions toward certain groups of people or the languages associated with them. All of these are important, I guess. All of them develop over time. They are what they are when the learners seat themselves in our classes at the beginning of term and what we do has a big effect on how they change and develop over time. But in the world I inhabit, motivation has one very clear and specific meaning that is usually danced around and around. When teachers ask about how to motivate their learners, they are usually talking about one thing and one thing only.

Stated baldly: how can I get learners to do things they have to do in my class? Implied in this is that the “something” is necessary but not enjoyable. And there is probably a lot of it.

If we unpack this a little, it seems that there are a few things going on. First, the activities are necessary but they are not pleasurable. The learners know they are not pleasurable. They may or may not have accepted that they are necessary. The activities may be effective but the improvement is probably not palpable. And learners usually have no idea of how to see if they are progressing. Part of the problem is the nature of language learning, the skill-knowledge blend of learning content that must be “mastered”. And EFL learning contexts are often really similar to how war was once described: long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of intense activity. That is, you learn and you learn and you learn, and then one day you get a chance to use what you learn in an authentic, and/or possibly high-stakes situation. There’s a dearth of meaningful, ongoing feedback. It’s partly the nature of the EFL beast, though with the internet it doesn’t have to be (but that’s another post…). But it is also partly the problem of the type of feedback learners get. Let’s assume little Hanako gets a 60 on her term-final test after studying from April to July, as many kids apparently do in jr and sr high English classes. How is she supposed to think about this? I can English? I can’t English? Face it, the feedback inspires no confidence, and it always carries with it a huge wet blanket of doubt.

Now, let’s go back to the classroom where the summer homework has just  been distributed and students are looking at it for the first time. Their summer task is to write out all the vocabulary in their supplemental vocabulary book, several times, and get ready for a great big vocabulary test in September. Can you feel the enthusiasm in the room? No,  you most certainly can’t.

How, ask the teachers, can I motivate my students?

In materials design, you want to work on two things: use psychology to up the fragile motivation kids are feeling, and remove the friction perception they have regarding what they must do. Here is the principle represented visually, from Joshua Porter, via Stephen Anderson:

The sad reality is that at for any given assignment/activity, “there is a tug of war unfolding in our head, determining whether or not we are willing to put in the effort,” says Jonah Lehrer in a recent article. Some people are just better at putting in the effort, even in the face of wispy rewards and seemingly pointless tasks (and  higher level schools are probably filled with them). But some people are not good at it. They need to be convinced, or enticed.

Motivating learners is an ongoing process. It involves, in my opinion, giving them success, challenging their abilities/skills in meaningful and delightful ways, and getting their understanding and acceptance of the whole process. Game designers understand this. Play any successful game for a few hours and watch yourself acquire skills. In an earlier post I talked about the brilliance of Plants Vs. Zombies–the staggered introduction of new challenges, the options for personalization, and the endless delightful quirks of items, challenges, names, etc. When something has a laborious amount of work attached to it, it must be perceived by learners as really useful, or  really fun.

So back to our classroom. How do you motivate students? Don’t give them boring assignments of questionable value. Give them something  meaningful and at least a little entertaining, something they can personalize, something they can see if they have accomplished or not. Design the assignment so that the workload is not immediately obvious and daunting–something they can run with, not something they can slam into.


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