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.


*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.


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

A totally unqualified riff on #Alt-Ac and me in Applied Linguistics/Language Teaching

Radio silence! I have syllabi to write and such. It is the very short break between the end of one Japanese academic year and the start of another. It is my first year that I will be mainly a part-time university teacher at three universities with marginal face-to-face freelancing.
One of my sweet distractions lately has been that, should my pipe dream of being a tenured lecturer not actually materialise, it might not be a bad thing because the working conditions for tenured staff can be absolute crap anyway. No, I haven’t been listening to The Auteurs again. I’ve been reading about alternative academia, or #Alt-Ac.
I don’t get grants to do research because I am part-time and I am – without doubt – not even registered as a blip to the people in charge anywhere that would fund anything as someone who would be doing anything remotely worth money to research and take time out and have a weekend at a conference and blah, blah, blah. The research I do is because either:

  1. it would be useful once and I might be able to use it again;
  2. it might be something I can show in a portfolio to get a better job;
  3. I might be able to sell something like materials based off the research and thus be a provider of children’s shoes to my household.

Would I be a better or a worse researcher if I were actually forced to be in an office dealing with millions of emails and several meetings and whatnot? I don’t know, but it would be rather nice to learn about research methods from media other than books and podcasts. A bit unlikely for a serial part-timer, mind but I do have an embryonic duoethnography probably underway once I actually get my arse in gear.
I keep entertaining doing a PhD (and will probably do a MRes so I can get academic credit for a biggish project I have on my mind). The only problem with a PhD is thinking about recouping the cost if I did one part-time or even recouping the cost of a wage cut if I did one full time. I know money isn’t everything but it’s very difficult to support a family on scholarly knowledge alone.
But Marc, you are getting ahead of yourself. Aren’t you a mere part-time instructor? Yes, I am. I also know that I have publications coming out, the probability of more, and might even have more publications than existing full-time instructors. I am pretty sure that my corpus work, if it actually ever sees the light of day when it is reviewed will be decent, and it’s not like there are a ton of ESP corpus linguists in Japan at the minute, unless I am woefully ignorant (and I kind of hope I am, in this case). There is a shortage of people obsessively interested in teaching listening and/or pronunciation (again, prove me wrong. Please!). There is no shortage of Task-Based Language Teachers in Japan, and my new job may mean that I get a bit more input there but I don’t know, so I’m not looking to carve a path there exactly though I have a book idea I am trying to work on because I have one more day off per week this year!
So, the new academic year: I am really looking forward to it, I have some cool courses to teach, some old and some new. I will have international students for the first time in about five years as well, which is nice because it keeps me on my toes pedagogically. And I can probably get at least a few blog posts and maybe a paper out of some stuff.
Anyhow, unfocused ruffian seeks tons of cash to research listening or make corpora. Hit me up in the comments if you want to give me money (joke [perhaps]).
You may also want to avail yourself of the not dry at all Research in Action podcast by Dr. Katie Linder.