It’s a word heard frequently in staff rooms whenever students are discussed. We don’t tend to use it when we’re writing their reports, but it’s often there on our lips as we compose them. The word in question is ‘lazy’, defined as being ‘unwilling to work or use energy’. It describes a feeling few of us are immune from. But perhaps it’s not a helpful way of understanding students, for three reasons.
Firstly, the word can weaken relationships between student and teacher. ‘Lazy’ is full of negative connotation and if we portray students in pejorative terms, we will resent having to teach them – no one likes helping the undeserving. Consequently, we ourselves begin to lose motivation. The problem doesn’t end there, of course. Even if we avoid calling our students ‘lazy’, they are very quick to pick on any negative attitudes we hold. There is nothing less likely to motivate a student than a demotivated teacher! So, thinking of our students as lazy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, the idea of laziness is disempowering and erodes hope of achievement. It is often seen as a fixed character trait, a flaw some people are just born with. Alternatively, we may even consider it a choice: ‘Don’t be lazy!’ we’ll exhort our students. Therefore, a student deemed ‘lazy’ will be perceived (or perceive themselves) either as incapable or naughty. Is this fair? Undoubtedly, some of us are born with passive dispositions or may acquire cynical beliefs about the value of effort. But others who seem lazy in the classroom seem anything but on a sports field or in a shopping centre. ‘Laziness’ can certainly have environmental causes.
And that brings us to our final point: that the word ‘lazy’ may prevent us from doing our jobs to the best of our ability. If we suggest through our language that lack of effort has no external causes, won’t it stop us looking for solutions? Once again, the word ‘lazy’ may make us lazy. Or perhaps we may be guilty of labelling students ‘lazy’ to escape the feeling that we ourselves could do more to motivate them? It’s a word that can seem a little too convenient at times. We might say it’s a little lazy to call someone lazy.
I therefore believe we need new ways to discuss students who lack the motivation to engage in learning behaviour. It was partly this conviction that led me in December of last year to join a research project alongside Japanese academic Keita Kikuchi into amotivation and demotivation, concepts that seemed closely linked to laziness. Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ‘lazy’ learners are often students who are struggling to meet psychological needs through learning and I believe there are a range of ways we can help them do this.
My early training experience included product training for primary and secondary courses in Italy. I have since given talks on extensive reading for OUP and on critical thinking and edtech for Oxdosa in recent years. For OUP, I’ve recently undertaken product training and motivation talks in Saudi and talked on motivation at IATEFL and Latvia in support of my most recent book Motivational Teaching. My experience as a writer and teacher continues to be in EAP (I teach humanities through ESL) and IELTS training. I have authored 2 IELTS course books and I have just decided to leave my IELTS examining post so can now participate in IELTS training. I am publishing an academic article in the new year on demotivation too.
Nick Thorner is also the author of ‘Motivational Teaching‘, a guide that explores how motivation works on an individual level and within a classroom environment.