Motivation – or Motive for action

Some people spend hours playing with a Rubik's cube. Personally, it's never appealed to me. Photo by Gabriel Rocha

What drives our actions? What are our true reasons for trying to accomplish certain deeds – from the simplest ones to the most complicated ones? And why is it that we sometimes quit when things get too complicated? What is it motivation and how does it affect our learning experiences?

Brown, in his Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, classifies 3 different perspectives of motivation: behaviouristic, cognitive, and constructivist – if you have the fourth edition, you can find this on pages 160 – 166. Is there a right way to look at motivation or we, as complex beings, are under the influence of all of them depending on the experience we’re being subjected to. For example, if we think of a classroom activities in which students know they’re going to be rewarded, does this mean their reason to carry out the activity is the anticipation of reward (a behaviouristic perspective)? Or do they all start doing things because everyone else in the classroom expects them to do so. As Brown (p. 161) puts it,

Each person is motivated differently, and will therefore act on his or her environment in ways that are unique. But these unique acts are always carried out within a cultural and social milieu and cannot be completely separated from that context.

If we take that perspective (constructivist) into account, that means that people depend a lot on the others and the environment to be motivated to do things. Well, looking at it from this point of view, it means that it is indeed very important to observe our students closely and pay attention to their behaviour. It’s amazing what a positive influence may do to a group, and it’s devastating the effect a negative remark may have. We’ve all seen it happening. If I remember one of my favourite movies of all times, Dead Poets Society, the effect that Mr. Keating had on his students (and the effect each motivated student had on the others) is just stunning. Another example we can see is in a completely different kind of movie, but still dealing with the same matter of motivation – Braveheart. When the Scots were to fight their very first battle against the English, a negative remark from one of them nearly made them all give up on the battle. However, when they see William Wallace talking to them about what they should do, with all that passion, they realise that there are certain expectations to be met. Those who aren’t certain of what to do just follow suit. It’s pretty much as if they needed reassurance from the group.

I’ve seen things happening in the classroom that both made it or killed it for an activity. When most students start enjoying the activity, it cascades and it’s bound to be successful. If, on the other hand, most students feel the activity is boring, others tend to follow suit. What does this mean? Can’t people really think for themselves? Is peer pressure so strong? Thinking about these questions at this very moment, I’m inclined to say that this happens more often than we may want to believe. Each classroom has its leader, and it’s key that the teacher identifies this leader sooner than later. Of course this doesn’t mean get to this one person and that’s it. I am of the opinion that all count equally in the classroom, and if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know that. But things might be a bit easier if you know that you can count on A or B to get the rest going. Transcendentalist R. W. Emerson had it when he said that,

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

But what about the cognitive perspective of motivation? This is when we see internal forces at play, and we all have this kind of drive. This is innate to human beings, and we can easily see it when we are given any kind of object to play with. Show someone a Rubik’s cube for the first time and this person will instantly start playing with it. It is the need for exploration, the seeking of knowledge, and the need for ego enhancement among others. But, ah, if only we didn’t think that much… just as we feel like playing around with new object or learning about new things, we also think about the degree of effort needed to master a skill, for instance. And this is when it gets boring, as most students say it. For instance, suppose you want to learn how to play the guitar. You want to do so because you think it’s a nice instrument or because you feel other will think best of you if you know how to play the guitar. In the beginning, you learn how to play a couple of songs and you start practising day and night those very songs. However, there comes a time when you realise that it will take you a lot of effort to get to the next level. You then analyse whether or not going through such an ordeal is profitable or not. If you think it is, you carry on. Otherwise…

This is, in my opinion, what happens to a couple of language learners. They feel that learning a second language might be a good thing, or they’re made to believe so by their social context. They do learn a couple of things at first, which motivates them. Let’s face it. Learning and, most importantly, being able to do things is motivating. Once we start being able to do things, these things magically become fun to us – in all areas. If you’re playing a video game and you suddenly realise you can do it well, you’ll have fun playing it. If you can’t play it well, you’re likely to label it as boring and move on to the next thing. If you succeed at learning a foreign language, you’re likely to enjoy attending classes and studying it. If you aren’t that successful, and if you notice that you’ll have to study extra hard to learn it, and if you can’t see any benefits in doing so, you’ll probably say it’s boring, or that you can’t learn it. And, if you bear with me for a moment, you’ll all agree that we’ve had in our classes students who had told us they’d never been able to learn the language, or that they find it boring, but then a change of behaviour is clear once they can understand bits and pieces of films, songs, or just a casual conversation at school.

What motives us into action, what drives us, is tricky. There are, as Ur said in her A course in language teaching, some factors of extrinsic motivation that are affected by the teacher. We can’t do much about intrinsic motivation, but we’ve got to worry about making sure those students who are intrinsically motivated remain motivated. As teachers, we can always look at, as Brown says it, orientations: instrumental or integrative. All this helps us decide how to best engage and motivate our learners. I guess I’ll end this post with what Harmer says in How to teach English,

One of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it. it is by their choice of topic, activity and linguistic content that they may be able to turn a class around. It is by their attitude to class participation, their conscientiousness, their humour and their seriousness that they may influence their students. It is by their own behaviour and enthusiasm that they may inspire.

Teachers are not, however, ultimately responsible for their students’ motivation. They can only encourage by word and deed. Real motivation comes from within each individual.

And in case you haven’t seen it, here goes a video by Daniel Pink on Motivation:

17 thoughts on “Motivation – or Motive for action

  1. Reading this kind of post from an educator like you motivates me Rick 🙂

    It is amazing how students can be influenced (for good or bad) by others. I’ve seen it too often in class. Sometimes I am successful at finding out the reason for the negative attitude and rarely I am able to change that.

    Keeping motivated students motivated on the other hand, I don’t find as hard – they just need some attention, some praise, new challenges being pointed to them. But I have to (sadly) admit I have been seeing less and less of the motivated kind in class. And more of the overly stressed, overly worked, “I want results fast” or “I am tired of studying English” type of student.

    What to do with those?

    1. That’s quite a predicament, huh?! And I believe the “I want it all, I want it now” kind of people are growing exponentially as miraculous methodologies bombard us on hoardings, radios spots, and TV adverts every day.

      I wish I had an answer for that. Things would be so much easier. But, if you allow me, I may attempt an answer: what I usually do is try to arrange a meeting with such people and explain to them as much as possible of language learning and teaching, of how much effort it takes, and also talk about their objectives with learning the language. Some people go to English schools and enroll in classes that will teach them a lot more than they need. If you’re looking at overall improvement/learning, development comes at a much slower rate than when you just want (have) to work on, say, reading.

      There’s one problem, though. Most people usually come to us with the pre-conceived idea that all schools want to hold them there as much as possible. Can we really blame them, when this might be a fact in lots of different schools? I guess the best we can do is have an honest talk and hope they are willing to listen to what we have to say.



    1. That’s just too kind of you, David. I absolutely loved the post about the carrots. And congratulations on the nomination! I really hope the award goes to someone in ELT. 🙂

  2. When it comes to motivation newbie teachers, like myself, find a hard time. It’s common to think “I’m not experienced enought to inspire them…”, however, I know, based in my experience as student, that the much you love what are you doing, the easier it gets to motivate. Just because you lack in experience, it doesn’t mean you love less what you do, therefore, inspire less.

    Great post! You love for ELT is motivating!


    1. Hi Lucas,

      The fact that you think about such things and reflect upon your practice only comes to show you’re on the path to be a great educator. And I couldn’t agree more with you. Being authentic counts a lot, and if you truly love what you’re doing, and you speak of it with passion, those around you are likely to be motivated as well.

      Many thanks for the comment! Looking forward to sharing more with you.


  3. Thank you, Henrick, for providing us with such thorough insights on motivation. I could not agree more with Michael G., the video is awesome!
    Keep up with the great work of sharing your thoughts on so many educational matters with us.

    Have a good one,

    Wallace ;0)

    1. Hi Wallace,

      It’s always a pleasure to share, especially when so many good people care enough to read and even comment at times.



  4. Hi Henrick,

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. What you say about the sweeping effect a negative comment can have is so true. It can be especially crushing for kids when they are feeling good about something but get put down by a throwaway remark.

    Over the years, I’ve found a little bit of direct attention can go a long way in motivating kids. Just this week, I’ve had a girl tell me how happy she is that I listen and respond to what she tries to say in English as well as a visit from a boy’s mother who wanted to tell me that her son is super-impressed that I keep asking about his baby sister and says English is his favourite subject! The personal touch is a great motivator.

    1. Hi Dave,

      I guess sometimes teachers have so much on their hands, that they might forget the most important thing: they’re teaching other human beings, who, as such, also have feelings and emotions. Worrying a bit more about the affective side of teaching can do wonders for one’s learning.

      It’s the personal touch, as you said. Listening, truly listening, to students is paramount.



  5. Hi Dave,
    Thank you for this. What you said about the influence of the ‘leaders’ in class really resonates with me. I’ve noticed having an ally in the class leader does wonders for my teaching, and have been very thwarted indeed by negative class leaders.
    You say that it’s important to identify the class leaders as soon as possible. Do you think certain kinds of activities can help bring out certain kinds of leaders? I’m now in the volatile ‘honeymoon period’ with 2 new groups and am super-conscious of how my activities, what I say verbally, and my non-verbal signals are laying a foundation. The class leaders are undetermined so far, and this seems largely outside my control.
    Does anyone have advice for positively influencing the emergence of class leaders?

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