Motivation = CAN = Competence + Autonomy + Network


One of the wonderful things about the Agen Workshop is the amazing people who come, people that I occasionally find time to sit down and talk to. Last year I met Liam Printer for the first time. He is Irish and teaches Spanish in a private school in Switzerland. He is working on a doctorate (among many other activities which also include coaching a girls’ basketball team) and I found his discussion of motivation very interesting. After all, we all know that if you can motivate your students, the battle is won. Liam explained that the three elements needed for motivation are: a feeling of competence (“I can do this.”), a feeling of autonomy (“I have some say in this.”) and a feeling of belonging to a network (“My friends and I are in this together.”)

This makes a lot of sense when applied to a classroom where the teacher is focusing on giving her students the Comprehensible Input they need to acquire language. We make tests and quizzes easy and don’t correct errors so that we can build a feeling of confidence and competence in our students. We give them choices. If we are doing TPRS, they decide what happens in the story. And we work very hard to create a positive and supportive classroom feeling, where everyone feels safe. Most of the presentations in any given conference will be about ways to develop one of the three crucial elements of motivation.

But, I thought, what about me? I tutor students and most of my sessions are one on one. How do I make a student feel that he belongs to a network? Some of my students have already found their network of fellow English speakers. In the days when I was giving oral exams for the French baccalaureate, whenever I encountered a student that was actually at ease carrying on a conversation with me, I almost always discovered that they shared a passion with a network of English speakers. It might be music or on-line games or anglophone neighbors that had motivated them to do more than memorize lists of irregular verbs. In those days, I focused on the passion. Liam helped me see that the feeling of belonging to a community, of being accepted, was as vital as that passion.

I did quite a bit of musing on Liam’s ideas. It helped me realize why I am not as motivated to go horse-riding as I used to be. I’m not spectacularly competent, but I’m much better than I used to be. I’m fairly autonomous, because I have my own horse and can ride when I want to. But … I have no one to ride with me. Two of my granddaughters used to come every school holiday, and we would ride together. None of the others caught the virus and Shanye and Ines are now living their lives of young adults and no longer visit as often. So I find it easier and easier to find reasons not to go riding. I realized that my passion for horse-riding would be hard to maintain if I don’t find others to share it with.

Recently I was contacted by the mother of a student who came to me for emergency lessons last spring. He was obviously not very motivated and I did not expect to see him again. Well, his mother wants his grades to improve and she wants him to continue taking lessons with me. At first I intended to refuse, because when the student is pushed into taking lessons by the parents, it rarely works out. Then I decided to have a discussion with the boy first, in case I had misjudged him. I saw him as the kind of student that could test Liam’s theory. What would it take to motivate him?

Competence? I could acknowledge whatever level he has reached and consider it a foundation to build on. In our discussion it turned out that he likes his new English teacher and is able to follow much of what goes on in class. So he does feel that he has some competence. I will be careful not to diminish that feeling.

Autonomy? To our meeting, I brought a variety of films in order to let him choose the one he’d like to work with. Some easier than others. We discussed them all and he chose Get Out! , a recent film which won the Oscar for the best original screenplay. If I had been choosing, I would have chosen something easier, but, I decided to go with his choice, to allow him some autonomy. I explained to him that there are two endings to the film and the DVD I have has both endings. We did the first scene, in which a black man, lost in a well to do suburb, is kidnapped, as a Movie Talk, then collaborated together to write a summary of the scene. I used his ideas, silently editing the grammar as we went, and projected the final text so that he could read it over again. So he is the author of our text.

Network? Now, here I admit I was a bit stumped. He doesn’t seem to have any passion shared with an on-line community. He is paying a higher price for one-on-one lessons, because he didn’t feel that he had much in common with the other student who came to lessons with him last spring. How do I make him feel part of a network?

Yesterday we had our second lesson. We watched the scene showing Chris in his apartment with Rose. I muted the dialog, so basically we began by talking about the photographs on the wall, what kind of person would live in such an apartment, what could their profession be, man or woman? Then we saw Chris shaving, then Rose choosing pastries for breakfast, and my student was surprised to realize they were a couple. He was able to guess that Chris was packing to go on a visit to her parents, and I let him listen to Chris’ question. “Do they know I’m black?” And Rose’s response. “They are not racist”.

We watched the drive to her parents’ home and the incident when they hit a deer. We discussed the policeman wanting to see Chris’ driver’s license even though he was not driving, his easy compliance and Rose’s defiance. Then we saw them arrive and my student agreed. Her parents were welcoming. They were not racist.

After Dean gives Chris a tour of the house and grounds, we see the parents and the couple having tea, served by Georgina, the black cook. I have prepared the scene as a VNL and we began the exercise, but did not have time to finish. I encouraged him when he heard the missing words and quickly gave them to him when he had problems, agreeing that some of them are hard to hear. A VNL exercise should build a feeling of competence and should never leave students feeling discouraged.

I had left the door open so that I could see when the next student arrived. There was a man with her who I assumed to be her father, but when we stopped, he turned out to be the boy’s father. If I had known, I would have closed the door, so that the boy did not feel he was being spied on. But on second thought it seemed to me that the lesson had ended on a good note and I had been congratulating the boy on what he was able to hear, so he could feel that he had displayed a certain competence for his father’s benefit.

I felt that the session had been positive and that we had progressed. He was very much into the film and obviously enjoying it. And I was enjoying his reactions and comments. Then it hit me. A network doesn’t have to be a lot of people. A network can be two people. Perhaps all networks began with two people connecting and then bringing in others. If I could develop a positive relationship with this boy, so that he can consider me a friend, someone who is on his side, I can be his English network. While I was asking his opinion about the images we saw, I was also saying that I valued and respected his opinion. I don’t expect to get invited to his next birthday party, but I can hope for his respect and trust. And perhaps that is the most important part of a network, being able to respect and trust the other people, the other person in your network. So, yes, I believe my new student will be motivated and able to progress in English. Because we will be building on all three of Liam’s components, competence, autonomy and network. A network of two, because we can be more than teacher and student. We can also be friends.

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