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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

September 2009

Topic: What Are Some Ways to Motivate Students?

Peter Viney


I am only an infrequent visitor to Japan, and my last visit with Karen Viney, my wife and co-writer, was five years ago, so everything I say here must be read with that in mind. In fact I may not be the person you want to go on like I do next, but I’ll have the temerity to say what seems reasonable based on my observations.

The topic that teachers, especially Japanese teachers, discussed with us most often on that visit was fast declining motivation among their students. They said changes were significant over the last few years. Old hands among the native English speakers (NES) reported the same phenomenon. Things had changed. One high school teacher in her twenties (Japanese) said the problem was basic. English was no longer “cool”. It had been when she was a student, not that long ago. That’s probably the most important factor of all. There’s little I can say or do about that, short of hoping for a new Anglophile cultural revolution.

The first observation is that external global factors have intervened, leading to less interest in learning English in general. I’ll take that as read, whether it’s a home filled with the distractions of Nintendo and Wii, or whether it’s a feeling that in the future interaction with China will be more important than with America or Britain. In much of my teaching experience, motivation was a given. Students had paid lots of money for the course, it was intensive and important for their careers.

In much of the world, leaning English has high extrinsic motivation attached. People think English will help them climb the career ladder. In many situations in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, people want to emigrate to an English speaking country, or if not, to a country where English can be used as an initial lingua franca, that really fuels their motivation. That this desire is weaker, or altogether absent, in Japan,makes the situation unusual.

Intrinsic motivation is problematic. It’s clear that for most people success breeds motivation. It’s true in every sphere of life that if you can’t manage to do something reasonably well, interest fades. If you can do something well, but no one recognizes it and the ability gets you nowhere, interest fades.

On our last visit, we did the tourist thing and took a week off in Kyoto. We wandered around the lanes buying various bits and pieces as gifts. What really surprised us was the very low level of English in this tourist situation. Young adults serving in shops couldn’t deal adequately with numbers in English, and that’s in a near-unique situation in a place where you can look down the street and there will virtually always be other non-Japanese people in sight. Usually, when we travel, people in tourist situations say they find Karen and I remarkably easy to understand. That’s after years of teaching beginners. We both naturally control the structures we use, and enunciate clearly. If they can’t understand us saying numbers, they haven’t got much chance with the average Native English speaker.

I could list excuses for them. Years of dull grammar translation in school didn’t help much, but students suffer that in many countries. Japanese is a long way from English, much further than Italian or Greek. True, but it’s no further than Thai or Chinese, and Japan has much more access to Western culture and movies and songs than many countries.

We firmly believe motivation comes from achievement, and what we saw was remarkably low achievement in a situation where there is both opportunity and a real need to speak English.

I’m going to propose an unpopular explanation to the particular problems in Japan: I’m going to blame teaching.

I’m going to propose an unpopular explanation to the particular problems in Japan: I’m going to blame teaching. I’ve been discussing Japan a lot recently in meetings with various people in publishing, and they all remark on the extreme diversification in the teaching situation compared to other countries, especially among Native English Speakers. There’s a wide variety of methodologies ranging from the most old-fashioned to the most avant-garde. The wide diversity of teaching situations in Japan makes it a most interesting place to visit. But there’s a “but”. Individual teachers get brilliant results, but the problem is that too many people are singing off different song sheets. A teacher can achieve success with a quirky style or a novel approach to teaching, but unless that teacher alone takes the students through from zero beginner to the end of their studies, students will be meeting other teachers who are singing in a different key. Lack of a consensus on broad goals among the teachers results in confusion for the students.

In other countries, when you attend teaching conferences, there is a range of ideas and personalities and approaches, but there is a broad consensus on at least some things. They all teach grammar (whether directly, or obliquely, or through translation). They all work on skills development. They structure the input of the lessons and materials to student level.

Whether they’re working on a structural syllabus, or a functional syllabus, or trying to invent a lexical syllabus, there is a consensus on something, even if it’s just the goals of the Common European Framework. I’m not advocating the centralization of teaching lampooned in discussions of the French education system in the 1950s. It was said that the Minister for Education could look at his calendar, and know “April tenth. Every twelve year old in France will be studying adverbs of manner today.”

On the other hand, I’ve never seen teachers in Europe cheerfully boast that they’ve spent a year or two taking students (students who can hardly string a coherent sentence together in front of a native speaker) through an authentic one thousand page novel. Outside Japan I’ve never seen anyone advocate that if students get enough reading input they’ll learn as if by osmosis. Nowhere else do you find advocates of ungraded material for beginners. Elsewhere I’ve also rarely seen people allowed in a classroom simply on the basis of being a native speaker.

In most situations I have experienced, peer observation with constructive criticism is considered a major teacher-training tool, and part of ongoing in-service training. I find it hard to comprehend that experienced teacher trainers are not expected to suggest or even prescribe teaching methods to new arrivals. When I was a tutor on an RSA Cert.TEFL Course (as it then was), one of my trainees told me she intended to use the Silent Way in one of her observed lessons for the exam. I simply said, “No. Don’t do it.

You’ve worked very hard. You’re sure to pass. Don’t throw it away. Go in and teach them something in a conventional way.” I get the impression that few are allowed the authority to say that in Japan.

The best motivation for students is the feeling that you have learned something, that you are now learning something else, and that you feel you will be able to cope with the next stage of learning. Students have to be able to look back, and say ‘In January I couldn’t do that. It’s April now, and I can do it.’ At the lower levels, they should be aware of what progress they’ve made today. Every teacher has to ask, ‘Is this happening? Not just in my lessons, but in their learning experience as a whole?’

Editors and authors have said things to me recently about Japan being too diverse and confused a teaching environment to cope with. They have a point. I could give you ten pages of detailed criticism of the Common European Framework levels or of the detailed syllabus goals listed for the KET and PET Cambridge exams, but they’re still excellent starting points which have taken years of negotiation to assemble. They’re Eurocentric to a degree, because they can assume higher guess rates, but the principle is valid.

Teachers need to agree on common goals, and like it or not, those goals can only be quantified in structural and functional terms. The functional list is vague, but far easier to compose (Students should be able to buy and sell items, discussing prices and giving change). The stuctural list inevitably leads to argument. Should there be overt grammar teaching, or should grammar be embedded? What is the sequence of presentation of the items expected as a final goal? What methodologies will be utilised to impart them?

It is however possible to say that students at a given level should be able to comprehend and use the present perfect to discuss recent events. That’s a concrete ELT goal. At a given level, students should be able to apologize with different degrees of politeness. That’s a concrete ELT goal. At a given level, students should be able to read a graded ELT reader at the 1250 headword level. That’s a concrete ELT goal. Students should be able to listen to a series of announcements and note times and numbers accurately without understanding every word of the announcement. That’s a concrete ELT goal.

Human happiness is not an ELT goal, unfortunately. Nor is knowing more about the environment. Nor is being a more caring person. All these things may happen alongside the acquisition of a language skill, but they’re not the measure of the skill. The greatest motivating factor is measurable success. Are enough students achieving that success?

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Marc Helgesen

How Can We Help Increase the Motivation of Our Part-Time Teachers?

“ The most wonderful good fortune that can happen to any human being is to be paid for doing that which he passionately loves to do.” - Abraham Maslow

Obviously motivation is central to what we do as teachers. It is a deal breaker. Without motivation, nothing much is going to happen.

While learner motivation is critical, I’d like to look at another factor where motivation is too often overlooked: Part-time teachers. Universities are making more and more use of part-timers. I think that’s a mistake for many reasons including the fact that it is making life harder for students: Students, who find it hard enough trying to catch full-time teachers with time to listen to them, encounter even more difficulties getting to talk to part-timers outside of the classroom. I know better than to waste my time and energy on a topic I can’t do anything about (i.e., increasedcommittee-work load for full-timers means less time to be spend on quality teaching.) Instead, I’ll look at an area where I can make a difference. How can we help increase the motivation of our part-time teachers?

If you were intentionally designing a demotivating work situation, it would look a lot like the way universities treat their part-timers.

If you were intentionally designing a demotivating work situation, it would look a lot like the way universities treat their part-timers. At most schools, part-timers have only minimal contact with the school staff and faculty between terms – just enough to establish what classes they’re teaching, schedules, classrooms, etc. Once classes start, part-timers show up every week, hanko in, and go right to their classroom or hang-out in the part-timers room, talking only to other part-timers on the once-a-week plan.

Teaching is a helping profession. As such, the real rewards for teaching are – or at least should be – in the upper half of Maslow’s Hierarchy. For teachers, issues like belonging, esteem and achievement, self-actualization are where we want to be working. Others describe how important that is with learners. I’d suggest it is just as important with teachers – if the teacher is motivated to be creative, caring, and passionate, there’s a good chance it will rub off on the learners. But the way the system in organized, part-time teachers come, teach, go home, and then get paid. Our institutions are paying attention to only their physiological (physical) and safety needs. They can buy food and pay the rent (hopefully). How can we expect part-timers to really feel like they are part of a team (love and belonging) when the full-timers hardly ever see them?

Of course, a lot of part-time teachers do get those higher-level rewards due to their own hard work and their great relationships with students. That is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be even better if the schools were helping to achieve those things ?

In my department, we’ve been consciously trying to make our part-timers feel like the important part of the program they are. What we do isn’t particularly difficult, but the part-timers have told us how much they appreciate them and how different it is than at most other schools.

• We also have a part-time faculty room in the department. Actually, we just converted a “preparation room” (jumbi-shitsu) next to a communication classroom (see the March Think Tank ). Of course, our part-timers can use the university-wide part-time staff room, but they all prefer the one in the department. It is right across from the department’s full-time English teachers’ offices so we all get to see each other every week. That makes it easy to talk about how classes are going, about students who are having problems, the things they need for their classes, etc. Many of our part-timers have commented that they feel our doors are always open. There is better communication and“having a home” in the department makes it clear they are part of the department.

• In the part-time faculty room, each teacher has a mailbox and a basket where they can keep things so they don’t have to be dragging extra teaching supplies to and from school every week. We also have class sets of colored pencils, markers, glue sticks, scissors, and other stationary supplies which makes it easier to do creative lessons that go beyond, “Open your books to page 57.”

• At the beginning of the year, the other full-time teacher and I hold a “pizza lunch” for all the part-timers. It is more than meeting the “physiological need for food” (though everyone likes a free lunch.) It is a chance for the teachers to get to know each other – full and part-timers, to talk about our plans, to share ideas. It starts the year off in a positive way and builds the understanding that we really are a team.

• We are a small university. The school had never bothered translating things like class schedules, documents about how to upload course abstracts, etc. into English. Of course, some of the part-timers have no problem reading Japanese, but others do. So we took it upon ourselves to makes sure all that information was translated. And the good news is that now the curriculum division of the administration takes our translations and makes them available to “Japanese-challenged” teachers in all the departments. And since we have the forms, it is simple to update them every year. Just making sure the teachers can easily access the information they need seems like common sense now that we have it. It means they don’t need to find someone to explain it to them and they are much less likely to miss important events and deadlines.

• Many schools discriminate against non-NEST (non-Native English Speaking Teachers) for oral classes. We don’t. Our English communication classes meet twice a week and we try to organize the schedules so students have one NEST and one non-NEST teacher. There are things non-NESTs are better at than natives, one of which is being great role models. Also, in this age of international English, the fact that our students meet good English speakers who are Japanese, Korean, and Thai (our present complement) in addition to Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Brits, and a Jamaican is all the better. And, by not discriminating, it means we have a much wider pool of teachers to choose from. We can chose really good, highly motivated teachers. The students know the reasons behind this policy. We try to make it a case of setting high expectations for everyone.

• All these ideas, I think, come back to a basic, essential element of motivation: Respect. When we treat our part-time colleagues as the professionals they are, it is easier for them to feel they are part of the team. That’s motivation.

Thanks to colleagues Brenda Hayashi, Satsuki Kojima, Soichi Ota and Ken Schmidt for feedback on an earlier version of this piece.

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Curtis Kelly

Maslow and the 3Ls

Student Motivation has always been an important concern for me. So important in fact, that I devoted most of my recent sabbatical to reading up on this very subject, especially the stuff that has come out of education and psychology. Unfortunately, what I read was a bit demotivating. There were so many mechanical models that only had a tenuous relationship to the classroom.

The labeling bothers me, but in a “good” school, motivation is nothing: it is already there. In a “bad” school it is everything: you live and breathe it. For 18 years, I worked in the latter type, schools with low rankings that accepted anyone who applied. A lot of the students who entered these schools couldn’t get in anywhere else. Attendance averaged around 50%, and it was not uncommon for me to be the only person in the room when the bell rang at the start of class. Assigning homework was a waste of time, since it just ended up punishing the one or two students who actually did it. Students sleeping through the whole class, or talking continuously, students refusing to pick up their pencils to do an exercise, or students not even bringing pencils, were common features in these schools. In many ways, these students were as smart as or smarter than students in other schools, but most seemed ill-suited to book and lecture learning. As far as I could tell, there were two reasons for this. They either didn’t have the auditory and passive learning styles needed for classroom language study, or they just couldn’t engage because their mental focus was elsewhere: personal issues, such as gaining autonomy or being valued.

Even though I studied Maslow thirty years ago in college, I never really understood his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs until I started teaching students like these. Maslow told us human needs exist in a hierarchy of five levels, as in the diagram. More importantly, a human being can only attend to one need at a time, and any lower level need eclipses the higher ones. As he explained it, a person dying of thirst will forget their thirst if all the oxygen is removed. Likewise, learners who must master the past tense for an upcoming test will not feel this need if they are hungry, nervous about their classmates, or lonely.

In short, with all the other issues these students faced, it was hard to get their attention in class. This is not a complaint on my part. Although there were some classes I dreaded going to, it was a lot worse for many of them. Despite my attempts to make classes enjoyable, many seemed miserable; not miserable because they were with me, but rather, miserable because they were with themselves. Their gaping lack of self-esteem was one of the saddest things I have ever encountered. It is the suffering of students like these that I have vowed to do something about.

It is the suffering of students like these that I have vowed to do something about.

I have a name for these students: “3Ls.” It stands for Low Ability, Low Confidence, and Low Motivation. I found them to be restless, searching, and skittish – any reading longer than 4 sentences scared them out of trying it. They also seemed to be locked in the perpetual cycle denoted by their label. Their English abilities were low, and this reduced their confidence. Their lack of confidence sapped their motivation, and without motivation, they couldn’t engage in study and raise their ability.


I have thought long about what to do about 3Ls, especially in regard of how to write materials for them. It bothers me that the majority of textbooks are designed for intermediate or advanced students, with the “Intro” levels seemingly added on later. In most cases, since the authors are unfamiliar with these kinds of students, their Intro level books seem to be just dumbed down versions of their better, higher level books, with the practice left in and the fun taken out. However, 3Ls, more than any other kind of student, need the fun element. They need a chance to manipulate language in a way that makes it their own. They need a vehicle to allow them to share. They need something to smile about. Instead, they usually just get a heavier dose of listen, repeat, and turn-your-feelings-off.

Anyway, I have concluded there is only one way to break the 3L cycle: After all, unless you have a lot of time, you can’t intervene on the ability side, and since these students have already decided that they are not good at English, you can’t do much about their linguistic confidence (although you have to be careful not to worsen it). Motivation, on the other hand, is still up for grabs, and this is where the secret to writing materials for 3L students lies. Find an English activity easy enough for them to do, but with a task so engaging that they would be motivated to do it even in their own language. In my experience, such tasks usually involve making something, finding something, sharing something, or doing something that has a real and immediate impact on their lives. For example, rather than having students plan fictitious picnics to practice food words, have them plan real class parties they will actually do. Suddenly, the English becomes incidental as they engage in a meaningful act.

In summary, instilling motivation is hard. For some teachers, it is not necessary to try, but for others, it is at the center of all they do. Having been one of the latter types that recently moved to a “good” school, I’m finding the 3L toolbox I brought with me even more valuable than before. Where once I needed these tools just to get students to participate in class, I can now use them to make students wildly excited, insightful, and prosperous. For me, working with 3Ls was how I learned to see each learner as a human seeking growth.

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Chuck Sandy

The Human Universe

Motivation, like fluency or beauty, is something that people cannot rightfully attribute to themselves. Just as we tend to shy away from people who say, “I’m really fluent!” or “I’m quite beautiful!” it’s rather odd to hear someone say, “I’m SO motivated,” the way one person at a book event said to me recently. I thought, “Good for you, but why tell me?” There were several possibilities that crossed my mind, all of them plausible, yet rather than explore any of those possible motivations for saying such a thing I said, “That’s great! I wish you a lot of luck” and then found a friend across the room and made my way in that direction.

The most interesting thing about motivation – like fluency and perhaps beauty -- is that it’s most often discussed when it’s lacking: especially in others. Sure, there are times when we ourselves say things like, “I just can’t seem to get myself motivated,” but what we often really mean is:

“There are a whole lot of other things I’d rather be doing.”

Of course, sometimes the deep structure of such a statement is,

“I’d rather be doing anything except this.” (in that tone)

That, in all it’s negativity, is a form of personal revolution, but in effect it’s not much different from the times when what we’re signalling is that we’d like to do less, or even less than that, as in:

“I don’t really feel like doing anything at all today.”

Yet, except for cases of clinical depression or some other form of psychological trauma, is this anything to worry about? Probably not, for if other people are like me, they don’t actually do nothing. Instead of nothing, they take a nap, reorganize things, put on some music, go out for a walk, thumb through a magazine, send an email or so, make some coffee, and all the while, let the mind wander to think about this and that.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of days, and call it procrastination if you will, but don’t call it lack of motivation. I’ve been plenty motivated, yet I’ve managed to accomplish almost nothing of value to others while successfully avoiding the things I’ve supposed to have been doing – like writing this article – until now.

This, of course, is why I’ve come to understand students like me so very well, and these are the ones I’ll now turn my attention to in this article -- the way I do in class. Those other students -- the handful who just show up fully self-motivated (intrinsically or extrinsically or autonomously even) --thrive to the beat of their own agenda. Even the majority of others -- the ones who simply and quietly do what’s expected of them without too much complaint -- move forward on their own.

It’s the other ones, the people like me – the procrastinators, the dreamers, the ones easily distracted by too many other interests or issues – who need the constant gentle care of alert attention. Otherwise, they’ll possibly spin out of control, causing damage to others (the class, the group, their family) while endangering their own self-esteem in the process. It took me half a lifetime, three different colleges, and four majors to learn that.

Even so, I’ll admit that it is still sometimes frustrating when people like this skip appointments or show up without their homework or wander in late with their minds elsewhere. Yet, it’s been years since I actually took someone to task for following their own motivations rather than my own schedules, procedures, and policies. What is the point of that? Yet, as a new teacher I thought, “these people are not doing what I told them to do! They’re not listening to me! I’ll show them! I’ll make them pay!” The result: Instant collapse of even potential motivation, and perhaps even potential. Bad vibes. Bad class. Bad day for everyone.

Now, I think, maybe they had something better to do or some problem to deal with or maybe something came up, or in the case of unfinished written work, perhaps, like me, they didn’t know what it was they wanted to say – yet. So, I cut them some slack, find out what’s going on, maybe extend a deadline for them, point them in a good direction, let them know I’m paying attention, and so discover how to pull them back in. It can be done and it’s more than just worth doing.

The list of possible reasons for people to want to follow their own motivations rather than those of others is potentially endless, but as Charles Olson writes in Human Universe (1958), “There are laws: that is to say, the human universe is as discoverable as that other. And as definable.”

Olson wasn’t an academic, interested in reducing things to lists of five or even two the way those most esteemed experts on motivation have done. Olson was a poet and someone who simply understood that we can and should consider the human universe seriously, work out its laws and principles, and then even go on to define it, discuss it, and write poems and papers about it. He also understood, though, that none is this is possible without the clear understanding that each person is a universe – that vast, that deep, that complex.

Motivation and empowerment, education and learning: it’s not about technique or method or research or theory. It’s about the human universe. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

What’s interesting is that Olson’s central thesis has nothing to do with education, but everything to do with understanding the self and others. What should be clear, though, is that this is what education is all about.
Still, what educators and parents and sometimes politicians most often mean when talking about the lack of motivation in others is:

“We’ve got to get these people to see things our way and do what we know is best for them.”

Often, of course, most people actually have no idea what’s best for anyone, let alone themselves, and as we all know, what’s best for everyone is not something most people truly want to be a part of, because well, they’re interested in other things. Moreover, whatever it is they’re being forced to do -- in ways they’d rather not and perhaps even can’t manage -- is keeping them from doing those things they’d rather do, in ways they can.

This is why those who seem most “unmotivated” most often rebel against “the system” in quiet and not so quiet ways: suddenly -- as in all at once deciding, “I’m not coming back tomorrow” -- or slowly -- as in over the course of a semester or adolescence realizing that, “once this is over, I’m out of here.” They spin out of control, off into some other orbit, or else crash and even burn.

What can be done to prevent this? How can we avoid having these people become the black holes of the classroom or family or nation? It’s simple: put them on a very long tether, long enough to let them explore their own universe, but not quite long enough to let them get lost in that space. Then, make them realize you believe their universe is a valid place, worth exploring.

How do you do that? You pay attention to who they are and take their lives seriously. Then you believe in their potential and demonstrate that, visibly. In a culture where taking someone’s (and even our own) internal universe seriously is increasingly rare, you just might be the only person who’s ever done such a thing for them. Result: Interest increase in motivation.

Now, if you think this sounds like just so much humanist babble, nice in theory but difficult in practice, then you’re like most people, and like most people you’ll probably be resistant to this, but I’d like to give you a challenge:

Pick your most difficult, most unmotivated student, walk into class tomorrow and, if he or she is there, find something to compliment him or her on. All you have to do is say, “Hey, nice haircut!” or “I’ve always wanted a leather jacket like that.” If you can’t quite bring yourself to genuinely make such a compliment, ask a question: “Does it hurt to get your nose pierced like that?” or “You look really tired. Were you up all night?” Then listen. That’s it. Go on about your business in class, but when it’s over say, “would you like to get a cup of coffee?” and then if appropriate to whatever you’ve learned, simply ask, “Would you like to talk about it?” Then listen, carefully. If coffee or lunch is too much, just stand in the hallway talking and listening. That’s it. Then repeat this process over the next few class meetings. I guarantee you’ll start to notice a change.

If you’re interested, there are several other easy and practical suggestions to try out. They will increase “motivation” and don’t take much effort, but they may require some rewiring on your part. If you’re already practicing such things, feel free to skip ahead or else just go and ...

• Open your office door if you have one. Keep it open. Get a coffee maker and teapot. Invest in some snacks. When you see your “troublesome” students walk by, invite them in. Stop whatever you’re doing. Talk and listen. Encourage.

• Start coming to class a few minutes early and staying a few minutes late – just to chat. Make a point of sitting down with your “worst” students. Tell them about your bad day, how hard it is for you to get up in the morning, how you’re tired because you were up late surfing the Internet or because you had an argument with your partner. Refer to that person by name, as if these students of yours were part of your life. Do this often enough and they will be.

• That worst student you complimented? The one you’re now chatting with and inviting into your office? Find out what interests this person most. Ask questions about this thing. Learn what you can. Pay attention. Then, the next time you see your student, casually give him or her something related to this – an article on the topic, a book you happen to have, a web address, or best yet, an introduction to someone else interested in the same thing. Great if it’s one of your other students. Better yet if it’s one of your friends.

• Find a way to make this interest part of your student’s academic life. In a language school, bring in an article with activities on the topic and have everybody in class learn about it. Make your “problem” student a resource, by saying, “Well, I don’t know very much about this topic, but Hiroki does.” In a high school or university context, make sure your Hiroki writes his report or thesis on some aspect of this central interest of his life. Then just say things like, “I didn’t know that. Can you find out more?” or better yet, “Here’s this article I found. Do you think it’s related?” Often the articles I find for my students make them think I’m clueless, they’re so off the mark. But then they get the pleasure of telling me why and pointing me in the right direction. Instant motivation and empowerment.

I almost guarantee that if you do these things, you’ll find that your problem student will start to shine. Do these things for your whole class, and you’ll find, like me, that this is basically all you have to do. Everything else will fall into place and you won’t even need to think about such big words as empowerment and self-actualization. In the process, like me, you’ll likely even become more motivated.

There’s one more thing, and this takes some practice and effort, but is more worthwhile than anything else you can do as a teacher: Believe that all of your students are not only capable of learning, but capable of excelling. Then, simply expect this of each one of them, in their own way. Value and show interest in everyone’s personal universe, give people a lot of latitude on that long tether, but let no one off easy. Humanism doesn’t mean just sitting in circles and feeling good about each other – though that’s not a bad thing. What humanism in education means is first helping people realize they have potential, and then leading them in the direction of reaching it. That’s a lot of work, but it’s the real work.

I’ve said elsewhere that teaching is a messy human business. That’s certainly true, but that’s what also makes it a joy. I’ve said here that this is something that’s taken me a bunch of schools and years to learn. Now, I’ll just simplify it for you:

Motivation and empowerment, education and learning: it’s not about technique or method or research or theory. It’s about the human universe. It’s as simple and as complex as that.

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Dorothy Zemach

Can a Teacher Motivate Every Student?

Like many teachers, I have seen a lot of movies about teachers. Many of the movies, especially those “based on a true story,” have a similar theme: A smart young teacher goes to a poor, inner-city school, faces a class of recalcitrant students, each one displaying a different attitude problem, and through her (or his) unwavering dedication to the students as people and ideals of education as a whole, leads the class to success. I like these kinds of stories. They inspire me as a teacher, and when I show them to my classes, they inspire the students.

A good example is the classic 1988 “Stand and Deliver,” based on the story of Jaime Escalante, a high school teacher from inner-city Los Angeles. In one of the more moving scenes, Escalante talks to his class of poor, racial minority students about the challenges they face:

"When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire. And maybe a haircut. If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you because I’m an expert."

And he does give them the desire. He goads them, urges them, threatens them, praises them, rewards them, yells at them,… and he takes them from their failing status in his remedial math class to passing the notoriously difficult AP Calculus exam.

(Any student who has ever taken the TOEFL will cringe in sympathy watching these students take that test.)

It’s every teacher’s dream, isn’t it? To be able to supply motivation. And to some extent, I think we can. Every class is a sort of sales opportunity, and you sell your subject area and even the minute details, such as the importance of distinguishing count and non-count nouns. Our energy level affects the students.

You can’t motivate your students if you yourself are exhausted, burned out, in poor physical health, overworked, in a bad mood, or unsure of the value of what you’re teaching.

How responsible are we, though, for every student’s motivational level? We might see them for 90 minutes a week, or three hours a week, or in some rare intensive class, even 10 hours a week. That’s still a small slice out of a student’s life that encompasses work, family, friends, hobbies, romance, and much else that we cannot affect. Sometimes―just sometimes―what we teach in English class is NOT the most important thing going on in their lives, and we need to accept that. Motivation can also be affected by a student’s character, personality, and state of mental and physical health. That’s a lot for one English teacher to cope with.

To the extent that it’s possible, we should of course motivate students as individuals and the class as a group. I don’t think it’s possible to list techniques that “work” for motivating others because it depends too much on the personality of the individual teacher as well as on the specific class and students in question. However, I do think that the teacher’s overall level of enthusiasm for her subject and class is infectious―and that is something that every teacher can work on.

When you fly, there’s no more chilling moment for a parent than when you hear that announcement that in the event of an unexpected loss of cabin pressure, you are to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting your children. Anyone can understand the wisdom of that, but you know in your heart how tremendously difficult it would be to not help your child (or, really, anybody’s child) first. It’s a similar situation with our classes.

You can’t motivate your students if you yourself are exhausted, burned out, in poor physical health, overworked, in a bad mood, or unsure of the value of what you’re teaching.

I would argue then that one very good way to motivate your students is to ensure that you do not assign homework faster than you can grade it; that you get around eight hours of sleep a night; that you use your weekends as work-free periods; that you eat protein with your breakfast every day; that you exercise regularly. These are areas of someone’s life that you do have control over, because it’s your life. When your life is running smoothly, you’ll be more likely to have the energy and enthusiasm to lead, cajole, or prod your students into finding their desire.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a different sort of movie about teaching, “The Emperor’s Club,” based on the short story “The Palace Thief” (Ethan Canin). Truthfully, I don’t know if this was a popular movie or not―I never heard of it in theaters in the US and have never seen any reviews, but I watched it on three different airplane trips, sometimes more than once, so I came to know it well. Mr. Hundert, the teacher, works in an expensive private preparatory school, teaching a class of motivated, hard-working students. Enter a new student, a poor-little-rich-boy type of much promise and intellect, but no motivation and of course the requisite poor attitude.

Hundert tries everything he can to motivate this student, at the expense, in fact, of a more deserving but less flashy student who does not present himself as “troubled.” I’ll throw in a bit of a spoiler, because what’s important about the movie is not the plot line, but the more subtle dynamics of personality. The troubled rich kid succeeds in life―but not in the right kind of motivation, nor in appreciation for education. Hundert is left for years to question his decision of spending a disproportionate amount of energy on this one student. Could he have been reached in another way? Is it possible to reach every student? What students are pushed aside when you reach out to the most glamorous troublemaker? Those are good questions for both a teacher and a class to discuss.

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Katsuko Matsubara

Classroom Group Dynamics; Significant Influence on Learner Motivation

Learning environment and motivation
Motivation is a complex psychological process that is subject to both internal and external influences. The quest to sort out this complexity and eventually understand motivation is worthwhile because it can help to predict and influence people’s behavior. While motivation is psychologically determined, influence on motivation from the immediate learning environment should not be neglected. For example, the effects of interaction among learners, the teacher, and other aspects of classroom instruction such as course evaluation, materials, and peer group pressure will also have an effect on learner attitude and their motivation. Therefore, it is necessary to consider what influences learner motivation from two perspectives: social motivation (external influences) and personal motivation (internal influences).

What are internal and external influences?
Social motivation is seen as human motives that are directly related to an individual’s social environment. In contrast to social motivation, personal motivation may be seen as motives developed internally without support from peers or significant others. Of course, it is difficult to distinguish these two aspects of motivation since they mutually influence each other. Examples of external influences are peer pressures and practical incentives such as getting a good grade in class. Examples of internal influences are having set personal goals and experiencing a feeling of enjoyment. If students have set concrete personal goals for themselves, their motivation tends to be high.

Motivating factors
In order to investigate learner motivation in more depth, a series of interview studies were conducted among Japanese university students (Matsubara, 2006). Examples of high motivating factors are peer pressures and practical incentives such as getting a good grade in class. Students felt that if their peers work hard, they feel obligated to perform well in class. For internal influences, positive learning history and having set personal goals are high motivating factors. If they had a good rapport with the teacher or had a good experience in terms of their performance, their motivation seems to go up. The interview revealed that the most significant influence on learner motivation comes from classroom experiences.

Demotivating factors
Most teachers seem to look at motivation factors and what influences learner motivation. On the other hand, demotivating factors also tell us about what is going through learners’ minds. A series of interviews with the students revealed as many demotivating factors as motivating factors. The most frequently cited demotivating factors was a negative learning history. One example occurs when a student’s personal goal and the course goal do not match or a student doesn’t like their instructor’s teaching style. For internal cause, a feeling of frustration and having no personal goal were mentioned as demotivating factors.

What teachers can do to increase motivation?
Learner motivation seems to be largely influenced by the learning environment. Therefore, classroom-related factors such as the interaction among students and the teacher, teaching methods employed by the teacher, and both personal and class learning goals are important factors affecting learner motivation. Though it was found that some motivational change occurs when students encounter English speakers and other cultures outside of the classroom, major motivational changes primarily rise from particular classroom experiences.

Teachers can’t force students to like English, but they can lead students to meaningful learning experiences. Because so many students are influenced by external causes that are based in classroom practices, teachers can help by guiding their students to set concrete goals and objectives and to provide positive learning experiences that increase their motivation. In order to create a positive and motivating learning environment, we need to look at classroom dynamics where students are involved in interactions that lead to positive learning experiences.

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I think that personally the outdoor education system needs a real improvement to get kids outdoors each week on a field trip. The classroom is stifling the creativity of kids. They need outdoor field courses and activities to be motivated. Field trips are what I remember as a kid especially ones to natural areas where we could see wildlife. Identifying plants and animals outdoors would help a lot in motivating children and teach them about the native plants and animals of their country. It also helps to get kids off their butts and off their cellphones and out of the classroom to be the good example of environmental education to instill social values of caring into society.



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