This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature.
How do I empower and motivate my students?
empower is a word I have problems with. In the UK at least, it has become badly tainted with bureaucratic Orwellian Newspeak, and it has been abused to cover everything from empowering hospital patients (by leaving the very sick to sort out how to wash themselves) to empowering refuse disposal operatives (what we used to call dustmen) by allowing them to decline to pick up bins if (say) a plastic bag accidentally found its way into the paper recycling bin. Compare ‘care in the community’, a piece of British government Newspeak which actually means shoving the mentally ill out on the streets to beg. In government terms, empower now means setting up a new bureaucratic heirarchy to persuade people they are empowered, when they are not.
empower is also Teacher-Trainese. I don’t have any problem with the underlying sentiment. When we use empower today we’re talking about students taking (at least some) control over their learning; having a say in the syllabus; having a choice in learning methods.
motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation can range from “I’m madly in love with an English speaker” to “I paid one hell of a lot of money for this course” through “I’ll get promoted if I pass this English test” to “I want to emigrate to the USA and change my life.” Extrinsically motivated students are easier to teach. Intrinsic motivation (I want to learn this for ME and because it’s interesting and it’s going somewhere) is harder to instill, but you need to instill it before the extrinsic motivation wears thin. It usually does.
There are ultra low-motivation situations. I envisage rows of blank teenage faces in a class that has zero interest in language learning, or rows of 21 year old Physics students doing their compulsory two lessons in a foreign language a week, or a group of employees sent out to the in-company class because it’s their turn (and who view English as an irritating intrusion into their cherished break from work.) You have to find a point of interest. They have to be involved. Some of it at least has to be fun to do.
Having spent the Christmas holidays with my three university-age kids and their friends, and having listened to their views on the receiving end of education, I’m going to take a conservative line on empowerment and motivation. The complaints they have about higher education are as follows.
(1) University teachers, for the most part, can’t teach. They drone through notes with zero presentation skills. Two of my kids have been through the British system, one through the American. From our experience, American universities teach more, support more, set and check realistic goals. So, first look to your own micro-skills as a teacher. Hone them before anything else. Think of the most boring speakers you’ve ever listened to. Think of the most interesting, involving and dynamic. The difference between the two is largely technique. These techniques can be acquired.
(2) There is no secret method. No hidden methodology that will bring instant success. No magic technique that will transform your classes. If they aren’t learning it could well be the teacher’s fault, not the material, nor student apathy nor the fact that it’s Friday afternoon. I was at a conference in Europe in the late 70s. The “functional approach” had just been discovered. It was going to change the world of ESL. Students would be motivated by the new relevant syllabus. But what happened was teachers standing up droning on about functional categories instead of structural categories. The syllabus changed. Teaching styles didn’t. So the new “method” made absolutely no difference.
(3) Teaching style and skills are more important and more effective than syllabus design in motivating a class. But you cannot dictate the style best suited to individuals. One of the most motivated classes I ever observed was in Italy in the 1980s. The teacher was a martinet. Her methodology creaked. The material was ancient and pretty dull. She used a lot of translation (but was very sharp on phonetics). She was a disciplinarian to a degree that even scared me as an observer. I found myself sitting up straight and paying attention. But the thirty-five 16-year old kids loved the lesson and worked extremely hard for her. Her teaching style was nearly opposite to mine, but she believed in it and it worked. I’d seek a relaxed carefree environment, she worked on developing learning tension. There is no single approach or style. Liberate the teacher to pursue their own way and their own personality.
(4) Universities often “empower” kids by the BOTLIB system of learner independence. BOTLIB means “Bugger off to the library. I’m busy.” The one in the USA got about 24 hour contact hours a week. The one studying physics in the UK also got this many contact hours plus even more lab (but complained bitterly about the teachers’ lack of presentation skills). My daughter dropped out of her pyschology course because she received only 90 minutes of actual “teaching”a week. 45 on Monday and 45 on Friday. The Friday class was cancelled three times in one term. Three weeks of the second term were devoted to “reading” and “revising for exams” (i.e. no teaching). It was learner independence gone mad. This was at what would be considered a better redbrick university too.
A friend who does careers advice in a secondary school complains that the amount of teaching varies hugely between sciences, medicine, law on one extreme grading through arts subjects down to social sciences at the other. People outside education knock media studies and drama, but both come at the “highest contact hours” end in most institutions. Drama and film have students working right through weekends on projects.
The implication for motivation is that the effort you get out of students is directly proportional to the effort you put in as a teacher. Empowerment does not mean just get on with whatever you feel like. The students will look to the teacher to direct and assist them positively in the process.
(5) The teacher has to know their subject. This should be self-evident. My daughter did IT (Information Technology) in the first term, but the IT teacher- a specialist- wasn’t able to open Microsoft Word and Excel documents generated on a Macintosh. He didn’t know that you had to append those silly little PC file extensions (.doc, .jpg) to document names so failed her. If you haven’t taken the trouble to find out how (e.g.) the tense system operates, or how the various uses of will function, you’re not going to be able to explain it to a class, or even successfully practise it with a class. The text book can take you part of the way, but it won’t ever do the whole job.
The common cry from a group of ten young adults was “Why don’t they teach us?” Students are motivated when they feel they’re being taught. When they feel they are making visible progress. When they can see the point of what they’re studying. When work gets marked promptly and clearly. When they enjoy the lessons. And above all when teachers regard them as human beings who deserve a say in the process and when they are listened to. It’s all very simple, really!