Manipulation or Motivation?

I will probably flesh this out in a few weeks with more references and make it longer so if this interests you, maybe bookmark this.

Motivation and Anxiety

Today, Zoltán Dörnyei presented at the TESOL conference in Chicago and he presented about engagement. Now, engagement is one of those words that everyone knows the meaning of but when asked to define it they define it differently than the next person. I don’t know how Prof. Dörnyei operationalises engagement so I am not going to put words in his mouth. What I am going to do is situate his talk in a wider context regarding affective factors in language teaching.

Motivation and engagement are positive words. They signify positive affect toward an act, and when used to talk about teaching and learning, they are used to support the idea that being on task and wanting to be on task is good. It’s an obvious good thing because in our minds, being on task means that language gets acquired.

Consequently, foreign language anxiety, as put forward by Elaine Horizont and her colleagues (1986) is the extreme negative effect of using and learning a foreign language. Obviously engagement and motivation are good and anxiety is bad. However, what we do to foster increased motivation and engagement and lower anxiety are not just commonsense, value-neutral acts.

A Dilemma

I have some great colleagues dotted around the various places I work at. At one, there is a colleague – let’s call him Bob, because I don’t know how comfortable he would be with me sharing this conversation and actually attributing it to him. Bob was at a conference when an attendee or presenter talked about “tricking” his students into being motivated to participate in tasks or activities. Bob was aghast. Bob thinks that this is manipulation. Manipulation is not usually considered good. Manipulation to be motivated is bad, then. But being motivated is good, so how does one reconcile this?

We are human and therefore we all have the right to make our own decisions. Students sign up for classes* and therefore are motivated enough to attend lessons, and another reason to sign up may be to have accountability for language learning behaviour like doing homework, reading, listening to podcasts, etc. Nobody signs up for classes to be subjected to manipulation. Yet this is what we do if we are trying to exercise control of other people, however noble our intentions.

So, what is our solution here? People will make irrational choices. In language teaching, what is often comfortable is not always the same as what is supported by evidence from research. People like this because they have a fixed idea of what ‘studying’ and therefore, learning looks like, because they may be equated to one another due to the near synonymy. Do we manipulate our students into our way of doing things? I’d say this is too patrician and also reduces the opportunity to foster learner autonomy.

If students are not given information to base their learning choices upon, and the teacher simply dictates what happens, they will either go along with things or they will reject the teaching through disengagement or non-attendance. If teachers trick students into participation, no choice is occurring, thus limiting the opportunity to decide upon participation, and reducing the likelihood of voluntary participation in future activities. It doesn’t matter how engaged the students may be; the fact is that there was no choice and if students feel lied to or manipulated then trust in the teacher (or even, in extreme cases, all teachers) is reduced. However, if we explain why we plan the activities we include in lessons, students can hear our rationale and if they don’t agree they can either voice an opinion or choose to participate or do neither. We can inform students about more fruitful ways to study than they may be used to. Therefore, when trust is established, then information is reliable and taken on board and acted upon.

Footnote

*At least the adult ones do, and I include university students in this even though they may have been strongarmed into deciding to go to university and they could always drop out by choice.

Reference

HORWITZ, E. K., HORWITZ, M. B. and COPE, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x