Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Motivation part II

I'm out here in Lubbock; it's a good place to ride off into the sunset, because when you do, you end up 9000 ft. up in the Sacramento Mountains, and that's what I plan to do as soon as I can.

But in the meantime I was asked to review a paper done on "motivation" and did it, my final parting shot to a semester that came to a relatively smooth end recently. Motivation has always been the key to language learning, but like everything else, people have had trouble figuring out what it is, what to do with it, how to construct it, etc. The world is full of EFL teachers in remote places who have told me, basically, all the "how-to-teach" lessons you give me are no good if you can't motivate the students. OK, fair enough. Let's figure out what it is, so we can figure out how to use it to help people learn.

So this writer starts out and brings in CST, as if that's the foundation of the new approach. Twenty years of research done by the Robert Gardner school, gone, not a trace, it's all this new approach based on CST. Well CST (Complex Systems Theory) is a set of ways to explain things in nature where every little actor acts based on the environment. So, if you boil the water at the bottom of a bucket eventually the molecules bump into each other, and the hot ones make the other ones warmer, and mathematical equations along with network theory can help explain how fast and in what order, etc. It actually can be applied to language: You move to Texas, you say "thank you" twenty times a day, but when everyone says "think you" back, eventually your vowels change based on what you hear. It's the environment you're in; it's not a rule or a decree that makes you do it.

Now apply this to motivation. Anyone who wanted to apply CST to motivation was probably looking at a football team, where everyone has to get their collective anger up and relies on feeding off his teammates; if one gets really riled up, it'll help get the rest to play their best. But that doesn't really apply to a language classroom. You can put people in groups repeatedly, but they start from the general maxims "Do what is required" and "Do as little as possible" along with "Don't let them see you break a sweat," which is perhaps the most important. One can see CST operating here, namely motivations changing based on perception of the environment, but there is a crucial difference. The teacher can change the requirements. The teacher can change what "possible" refers to. The teacher can change what is "required." People are not flailing around in a leaderless vacuum. The students we are talking about always have one eye on the teacher, and the other on their classmates.

The problem I see with the above scenario, and with group work in general, is that the collective influence works in both ways. It's not like a football team where everyone is invested in a single outcome. You can have a group huddle at the beginning and say to them, in effect, hey, it's in your best interest to put your whole souls into this group work, but basically, it isn't going to happen.

It isn't even going to happen in the U.S., where people have paid literally thousands to come over here, get an apartment, and maintain a life so they can learn English in order to get integrated into the society. A lot of our (ESL) students are more than willing to do the best they can in group work, but motivational forces are still pushing and pulling them simultaneously. In Japan, or Peru, it's much worse. The collective spirit is definitely a pulling force.

I was impatient, not so much with the assertion that motivation required a CST-kind of explanation, but with the failure to explain how, or why. It's not such a revelation that motivation is at the bottom of everything. You can look at any class, ESL or EFL, worldwide, and say, motivation is the problem here. But sometimes I think people pull out concepts like "CST" in order to say, "it's all so complicated, there's no way we normal people can figure it out." Actually, I think we can figure it out. I don't think I can say I've done it yet, though.

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