Motivation

The mere mention of the word motivation can send shivers up the spine of the most seasoned pedagogues. What the heck does it even mean? Are my students motivated? How can I find out?

A recent talk I attended at the TESOL France colloquium by Stephen-Scott Brewer renewed my interest in the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but elaborated it into a spectrum. At one end lay pure amotivation, moving through extrinsic motivation to pure intrinsic motivation. It made me realise that accessing the potential of a student’s intrinsic motivation may be related to the idea of Krashen’s affective learning filter.

Understanding motivation, for me, lies in the distinction between the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic means being motivated for reasons to do exclusively with the self. This could be a desire to succeed for pure self gratification, or even simpler — the desire to survive (food, shelter, etc.). These are the purest forms of motivation; they represent our most basic desires.

Extrinsic motivation comes from factors external to purely selfish needs, for example: making progress in a job; establishing or maintaining a relationship; satisfying a social convention; etc. One key factor here, where the spectrum comes into play, is that all effective extrinsic motivation contains elements of intrinsic motivation. Being promoted through good results at work gives us greater means to satisfy our monetary desires, as well as greater self esteem. Making friends brings us opportunities for the pleasure of socialising, or even help in problem resolution.

Once we reach the other end of the spectrum, where extrinsic motivation dwarfs any intrinsic motivation, for example: a child wishing to perform well in an subject they hate simply because of parental pressure, we close in on amotivation. The less selfish gain we can achieve in something, the less motivated we are to do it.

My previous point sounds terribly misanthropic. The argument that no one does anything without some personal gain is a sore point for people who profess the power of the human spirit to do good in the world, but it is an inescapable truth. Even the most selfless, heroic act leads to feelings of righteousness or heroism, so it is partially intrinsically motivated, whether it’s intended to be or not.

So far so good, but how does this relate to language teaching? Well, surely this provides the ultimate answer to classroom activities’ effectiveness: make them entirely selfish. Throw a student into a pit of snakes until they tell you about their weekend with perfectly conjugated verbs and by God you’ll have effective language acquisition!

Though in reality this isn’t the case. Imagine the student whose passion is vintage cars, so you ask him to prepare a presentation for the class on his favourite model. These students so often produce surprisingly uninspiring work, unable to express themselves and resentful of being asked to do so. Their intrinsic motivation cannot break through their, sometimes intense, psychological issues. Krashen (2003) states that certain negative emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and even boredom interfere with the effectiveness of second language acquisition.

So to access a student’s motivation, we must not only deal with how well we’re satisfying their personal needs, but also how much they are affected in learning by negative emotions. This puts the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Not that we don’t care about our students’ problems, but dealing with psychological issues is a delicate process. Perhaps, with some basic training, we could take on the responsibility of something like a counsellor as well as a trainer — like a language coach — dealing with linguistic, as well as personal, problems. I’m still developing my own views on this, and I would love some input from the blogging community in the comments.

Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

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