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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 2)

Young man falling asleep holding booksFollowing 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.

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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 1)

Young man chewing pencil while studyingIn the first of a three-part series, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, defines and explores two kinds of motivation that can lead to different learning outcomes with adult learners of English as a foreign language.

‘Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002)

Three key terms in this quote are motivated, attention, and learning, and they are closely related. Attention determines what appears in consciousness, and without it no learning can be done. Attention is a kind of psychic energy, an effort of the mind, and to make this effort, you must be motivated to do so. The quote implies that there is more than one kind, or quality, of motivation; it speaks of being extrinsically motivated, implying a contrast with intrinsically motivated.

And it seems that these different kinds of motivation can lead to different learning outcomes. Stevick has pointed out, ‘In the long run, the quantity of your students’ learning will depend on the quality of the attention they give to it’ (Stevick 1982). Csikszentmihalyi’s quote is pessimistic about the quantity of learning which will result, in the long run, from relying exclusively on extrinsic motivation.

So what are these two kinds of motivation?

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