Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Great Motivators

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

For teachers, four key factors affect the rate at which a student learns a second language. (I am referring to external factors. Although they clearly have roles to play, such considerations as attitude, aptitude and previous experience in language learning don't count in the context of this discussion.)

The most important factor relates to the student's primary motivation. Language theorists often describe a language student's primary form of motivation as either instrumental or integrative motivation.

Instrumental motivation is the weaker form. Common among those learning English, for example, with no intention of ever living in a country like Britain or Canada, instrumental motivation is the prime mover of those who want to learn a language as a tool for some secondary purpose – talking to tourists, for example. Integrative motivation is a greater force. It is the motivation of those who are learning a second language in a new country, and they are learning the language so they can integrate into a new society.

The second fundamental factor affecting language learning is the amount of time the student spends in class and practicing the language. Generally speaking, more motivated students spend more time; less motivated students, less.

The third factor is the teacher’s approach (for example, communicative language teaching or audiolingualism) to language teaching. The fourth is the instructor's teaching effectiveness and style.

You can probably see a big problem here. The myth of the great teacher whose motivational abilities inspire her students to world-shattering achievements is essentially flawed. I think of this as the paradox of motivation. The student's main motivator - integrative or instrumental motivation - is the one factor the teacher essentially has no control over. And that motivation drives the second most important factor behind student success, time spent on task.

What's a teacher to do? Accept this reality, and develop your ability to motivate students in secondary ways. Primary motivation notwithstanding, the teacher's motivational skills are still critical for both learning and teaching.

Good teachers use many teaching qualities to motivate students. These include a combination of variation and structure in teaching activities. They find ways to show the practical value of learning English. They encourage and nurture their students, and many excellent teachers also bring sympathy and empathy into the classroom. They make the physical teaching space as compatible with learning as they can. They offer tools for learning (for example, mnemonics) and they conduct the class in a fair and balanced way. They also provide the students with consistency and fairness, and they do everything they can to help the students feel safe.

What TEFL teachers think: In a recent class, I discussed this problem with my TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) students, and asked them to brainstorm ways to motivate their students. They concluded that there are five areas where the teacher can really make a difference: in their lesson plans, in classroom management, in teaching style, in testing and assessment and in professional development. By no means were their ideas exhaustive, but they were good. Here is a summary.

1. Create great lesson plans: Choose great topics. Provide interesting and varied activities. Develop medium-term class themes. Have attainable goals and objectives, which provide real challenges but seek progress, not perfection. KISS (Keep it short and simple). And use authentic materials and situations for classroom teaching.

2. Classroom management: Attend to your students’ comfort and convenience. Find ways to visually represent class progress. Set up the classroom effectively and use equipment as effectively as you can.

3. Teaching style: Your teaching style consists of attitude, presence and rapport. Here are some comments on each.
• Attitude: Know your students’ names. Activate their prior knowledge and nurture their abilities. Be knowledgeable and authoritative, but modest. Be passionate about teaching. Be punctual. Dress and groom professionally.
• Presence: Empathize with your students. Enable your students to have fun. Show your personality, and vary the ways you teach
• Rapport: Appeal to different learning styles, especially kinaesthetic. Be conscious and respectful of your students’ culture or cultures. Give genuine praise and recognition. Involve the students in their learning; for example, use KWL (“what you know, what you want to know, what you have learned”) charts to develop and measure class content. Offer appropriate counsel and advice.

4. Assessment: Give your students good and regular assessment and testing. Get them to help each other. Monitor the class through feedback, and use prizes as rewards from time to time.

5. Professional development: Keep a log of your classroom performance, on occasion get someone to video your performance, and periodically ask a colleague or friend to assess your teaching. And take advantage of whatever professional development training you can get your hands on. We can always improve, and we must.
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