Following his post defining and exploring two kinds of motivation in adult learners, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, continues the series with a consideration of why some material is inherently more motivating than others.
In Williams and Burden’s book Psychology for Language Teachers (1997) they trace back certain theories of motivation to a theoretical assumption of ‘homeostasis’ – namely that animals – and people – prefer not to be in a state of arousal. That is, we would prefer to be in a state of having all our physical and intellectual needs satisfied.
However, experiments have shown this not to be the case, and that even rats are motivated by curiosity and novelty. John McVicar Hunt (1961) identified the motivating force of curiosity: we actively seek material which is surprising, incongruous, or discrepant.
To see what this might look like in more concrete classroom terms, consider the following example from Widdowson (2003). He suggests that there is a big problem with the following pedagogic text, with its accompanying illustration:
This is a man. He is John Brown; he is Mr Brown. He is sitting in a chair. This is a woman. She is Mary Brown; she is Mrs Brown. She is standing by a table. Mr Brown has a book. The book is in his hand; he has a book in his hand. Mrs Brown has a bag …”
Widdowson’s problem is not, as you might expect, that the text is so unnatural and unlike anything in real life. These things are not necessarily problematic. The real problem is that the text is boring. It tells us nothing that we didn’t already know from the picture. The text is ‘simply a device for demonstration. As such, it offers nothing for learners to engage with’. You might say that the text is too stable – there are no loose ends to provoke any kind of curiosity.