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

19 Replies to “Manipulation or Motivation?”

  1. This is great, Marc. I’ve long been working on eradicating manipulation from my classes. I simply hate manipulation, emotional blackmail, collective punishment and all these things. Which, on the other hand can make you a bit boring. So a good teacher should be able to strike a balance between non-manipulating and motivating their class. Also, I’ve had a lot of students who don’t care about learner autonomy. But also a lot of students who ask for tips on how to study the language outside of class, which I feel is where we teachers should provide some informed options. A weak point for me, certainly.

    1. Hi Kamila,
      I think it’s better to be straight with students most of the time. In the Japanese context, most students in language schools know that praise is empty and just something used to get them to sign up for another year. As for learner autonomy, I have a feeling students say that they don’t care about it but in the long term they do because they want to handle things without the teacher, and too much autonomy at once would be a bit of a shock. But, like I said, it’s just a feeling.
      Cheers for the comment!

    1. There’s no trickery if you know what’s going on. And there can still be quality. But I prefer Penn & Teller to David Copperfield.

  2. I hate manipulation too but the type of manipulation you describe has a good connotation for me – too good to be labelled manipulation. Under certain circumstances, on a spectrum, manipulation simply equals motivation to me. As a student, I admired teachers made me feel engaged – no matter how ‘manipulative’ they were. By the way, I bet you manipulate your little son into doing things too (going to bed, hygiene, etc.). 🙂 It’s not bad because you want the best for him. But I know teachers who, in passing and with a broad smile on their face, tell the class that taking part in a (voluntary) math competition equals good grades. That’s manipulation because that’s got to do with the teacher’s power and the students feel they have no choice.
    Well, interesting topic, Marc. I’ve been pondering it too but I have come to a conclusion that being a little manipulative is just part of our role – whether we like it or not. 🙂

    1. Hi Hana,
      I honestly don’t think I am that manipulative as a teacher. I am pretty much ‘this is it, make the best of it, but you’re welcome to take it or leave it’. I think there’s also a big difference in *asking* the class to go along with you than *making* them do it. And if we make students do stuff, what happens when they leave us and there is nobody to make them do stuff.
      You are absolutely spot on about the ‘voluntary’ activities. If we’re power tripping, or perceived to be, then perhaps we’re even inadvertently manipulating students.
      I will probably follow this up with you some time. You have given me something to think about! Thanks.

  3. Thanks Marc, an interesting read on a fine line.
    I used to have a first lesson activity I used with adults which used buzz groups to discuss beliefs on learning and expectations of the class. Like you, I like to be straight up with my students and I totally agree that sometimes this open discussion about how we will do things in class (and what they can do out of it) and why, helps to build trust and the autonomy you mention.
    I think it also has to bring in the harsh reality of how long learning realistically takes and the motivation needed to sustain it, but schools don’t like talking about that side of it. It’s all about ‘of course you can learn here and be brilliant on our 4-week intensive courses!!’. Unfortunately many teachers have no choice but to deal with that kind of manipulation.

  4. Hi Marc and thank you for an interesting post!
    I’d say I partly agree with you. I teach a compulsory English class for Japanese freshmen, and sometimes I have to deal with behavioural issues and demotivation. They can drop the class, but they can’t graduate without passing it, so eventually they have to take it (either a regular semester-long one or a 5-day intensive one during holidays). I must admit that sometimes I have no choice but to manipulate my students in order to engage them and keep them on track. At the same time, I try to give them an opportunity to make their learning choices, and I try my best to foster learner autonomy (to the extent the course rules and requirements allow). Therefore, I wouldn’t say manipulation for the sake of motivation and engagement is always bad. But at the end of the day, we’re all different and have different opinions ?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lina,
      I think we do what we can, and of course we have different ideas about what should go on in class. I suppose if I boil everything down, as a learner, I like to feel like I have a lot of control.

  5. Hi Marc, and thank you for yet another intriguing read. Manipulation just doesn’t sound pleasant to anyone’s ears, does it? That is partly why I didn’t comment on your post straight after reading it the first time; it clicked in my mind and thought I should give it more time and another read
    Considering this in my own context, it seems to me I’ve been working on multiple gears, depending on the learner groups. As a rule, I’m clear about the whys and hows from the start too. The manner (attitude?) in which that happens, though, differs. As most teens happily rush in and wish for control and many adults need to be reminded what learning means in practice, it’s difficult to have a common, balanced way of explaining how things will work in our exchange – it has to be adapted each time.
    I don’t consider myself manipulative either and so far most of my learners have appreciated directness, with good, lasting outcomes. Am I certain I have never taught in a manipulative way? No.
    I’m guilty of manipulation, of sorts, towards parents sometimes, as a last resort of engaging them in their teen children’s learning – so maybe I’ve inadvertently done it with learners too?
    I’m definitely giving this more thought 🙂

    1. Hi Christina,
      I don’t think any of us have ever taught without desiring to control others. I simply think it’s better to get buy-in voluntarily than trickery and deception regarding learning aims and planned outcomes.

      1. I agree with your point, Marc. It led me to consider whether this takes place in my classes and share it here. Being straightforward has not failed yet, but it’s always good to step back and reflect on what we’ve been doing.
        Another thought that came while reading the thread here: ‘trickery’ is what the presenter you mentioned used – could it be an unfortunate choice of words to describe the process, rather than what they actually do? I’ve experienced this quite a few times in conferences and asked for clarification – which often opens a can of unprepared, no-sense worms.
        Thank you, once more!

  6. It depends on the curriculum and the student. Sometimes a person who isn’t living up to their potential or being unruly needs handled differently. I wouldn’t say to manipulate with ill intent is ever a good thing, but in certain circumstances a form of ‘good’ manipulation can be a useful tool.

    1. I kind of disagree, I think. I would say that in the non-compulsory setting, students should be advised to start studying when they are ready and voluntarily so. Language is important, and trying to force it seems counterproduductive.

      1. I understand your viewpoint. I have 4 kids, one is language and speech delayed to name a few. If it weren’t for forms of trickery he would never learn. He wouldn’t even be able to write. So, we have to use disguised learning. A form of manipulation.
        I think it is based on individual needs at the end of the day. I don’t ever make my kids do work that they don’t want. I think learning should be a good experience too. When I was in school, I had a hard time completing assignments that didn’t appeal to me. I always chose courses in college to give me more independence on my coursework.
        Many courses people take in college are not courses that they want to take, they have to, as I’m sure you know. College students can choose not WD out of the course if they choose, but can’t if they expect to graduate. I wouldn’t force an adult to be in my class if I were a teacher, but if I saw potential in someone, I might make effort to try something different on them. We all learn differently. In the Karate Kid, Daniel was manipulated into learning karate by doing chores, he didn’t at first understand the meaning of. Though a fictitious story, the trickery was there. But for the good.

        1. I think, for first language, maybe you need to encourage kids to learn. I think it’s just dishonesty in classrooms that kind of gets to me.
          College students particularly need to be given autonomy in their learning, because when they graduate, who is going to keep them learning and holding on to that second language?

          1. My favorite quote of all time is this:
            If he is indeed wise, he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
            Sometimes when you think you are being manipulated, you are actually in the presence of a good ‘life’ teacher.
            As I stated prior: this truly depends on circumstances.

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