Motivating Goalposts

The other weekend I painted my son’s bedroom. It’s not my favourite job. In fact, given my physical ineptness and natural laziness, I think we can safely say I actively dislike, occasionally hate, all aspects of DIY. I don’t understand those who claim to like it, who will remain a mystery to me. The argument I usually hear when I say I hate household DIY is usually along the lines of “but doesn’t it feel good when it’s done?” However, my response is not to acknowledge satisfaction with the results of my hard work, but rather that I feel relieved that with a job like that, it will be several years at least before I have to do it again.

By way of comparison, in the same week I also fixed my old bike. I replaced and refitted the derailleur and the chain, sorted the saddle out, straightened the handlebars, all those things, and overall got the whole thing rideable. Not amazingly so, but it moves and can be cycled to a shop where an expert can do the job properly. It’s going to be my “Dad” bike, which I use to haul children back and forth to nursery and school, saving my other bike for speedy fun cycling. Crucially, however I enjoyed this job, even the tricky and frustrating bits and it took serious setbacks and mistakes to get me cross.

Both of these are outside my usual sphere of operations, the ESOL classroom, but both of them got me thinking about motivation and goals. In both cases I had a clear, positive goal, one which I recognised the need for, and the benefit of which was easily identifiable. They both represented the same level of challenge, although the painting represented a longer, harder job. That said, had it been a shorter job, say just one wall, I would probably have merely disliked it, rather than hated it.

The goal, or dare I say it, the target, (the distinction is tedious) was clearly not, in and of itself, motivating. Even though I could see the point, even though there was a benefit to the decorating, I still did not feel motivated to do it. You could cut the goal into smaller, manageable units, (as you tend to do in these cases: “OK. In about an hour I’ll have finished this wall, and gone round the edges of the next wall….”) as per the philosophy of target setting, but it didn’t make the task easier or better or crucially more motivating.

What we were looking at was a case of instrumental motivation, that is, a desire to do something in order to achieve an end which is not necessarily the thing itself. In ESOL terms, this is what drives most learners into our classroom: they want to learn English in order to find work, help children, pass the Life In the UK test,and so on. English itself is usually a means to an end. Likewise, the painting was a means to an end: I want my son to have a nice bedroom.

The issue with purely instrumental motivation is that its enough to get you to a point, usually just through the door, but it’s not enough to be effective in the longer term. I neither like painting nor do I particularly want to become good at painting. If I could get away with never having to pick up a paintbrush again, I would. Likewise, a lot of learners, if UK society were more pleasantly multilingual, and less stubbornly monolingual, would probably never bother.

For ESOL learners, it could be argued that their motivation is “integrative” which, as the name suggests, is about wanting to be part of the speech community,in this case, wanting to integrate into English language society in the UK. This is deceptively obvious, however, as we assume that ESOL in the UK is all about integration. But learners I’ve spoken to have very often been focussed on instrumental gains, like jobs and so on, rather than integrative gains, like wanting to be a member of society. Before you say it, the LIUK test and the desire for citizenship is also not about wanting to be socially accepted, but I suspect more about being politically and legally accepted, which is quite a different thing. It’s definitely true from my own observations of learners that the most successful language learners are those who are more immersed, move in wider circles than those of their own language groups, and the least successful learners tend to be those who spend more time within their own language group.

But anyway, this doesn’t help me with my painting. I could hardly imagine an integrative motivation for painting, unless I were attempting to fit in with a gang of decorators. For me to have enjoyed the painting, then, needed something else. Some other quality or element. It needed the motivation to come from inside me. It needed me to love the activity, enjoy the act of painting for the pleasure to be gained from doing it. The instrumental motivation helped me fix my bike, for sure, but also a general, developing interest in bikes, and how they work, made that task interesting in and of itself. It was fun to tinker. Bikes are, for the moment, intrinsically motivating, as I enjoy the act of cycling, and things around that are interesting. Thinking back to ESOL, then, the learner who is just interested in English, who just thinks grammar and vocabulary is cool, is always going to do better than the learner who merely sees language as a means to an end. This intrinsic motivation, it is said (Lighbown & Spada,”How Languages are Learned” would be a good place to start looking) is by and large the big winner for language learning, and, I suspect, for learning in general.

It certainly appeals to logic that an innate interest in the thing being learned is likely to be more motivating, and that motivation from outside is rarely going to help in more than the very short term, no matter what you do with it. So perhaps I will never enjoy painting, whatever strategies i take to engage with it. Certainly the traditional strategies of identifying the long term goal (a painted room) and then breaking it down into component, manageable stages (cutting in, paint one wall, cutting in again, paint another wall….) have failed in this instance. I don’t care about painting, am not interested in colours and painting methods. I do care about bikes and their workings, for the time being anyway, so this was interesting and therefore I was motivated to do it.

From a classroom perspective, ESOL teachers are good at picking up on instrumental and integrative motivation, and applying that in class. “Why do you want to learn English? What do you want to use it for?” is a great place to start. Language contexts and materials are based in real life, or based in the learners’ lives. And why not? After all, we can all talk about our own lives and relate to them, and if the language is useful and relevant, then learners can see how this can be used outside the classroom.

This is fine, but making lessons hyper-functional in their learner-centredness is not just tedious (“Mrs Khan goes to the dentist/doctor/supermarket…”) but it’s also not enough for the learners to become good language users. Not, at least, in and of itself. It’s one of the reasons for the intermediate plateau, when ESOL learners hit E3 and struggle to get much higher. At E3 they can do most of the stuff they need to be able to do. Some instrumental motivation may remain (further qualifications, wider progression onto mainstream education, etc.) but by and large the day to day pressing need to learn more is is much reduced.

So we need to find another way, another hook. As teachers we can, or example, make our lessons intrinsically interesting. For example, moving away from functional stuff, at least for significant chunks of the course, and looking at the more creative and productive uses of language, or simply breaking up and playing with the way the class is managed: these things give us what Lightbown and Spada refer to as “instructional motivation”. The content and methods are basically interesting and engaging and designed in such a way that all (or any) learner will get the same from them. In terms of practical classroom methodology, this might include:

– Moving learners around into different interaction patterns (pairs, small groups, large groups)
– Using activities like a jigsaw reading to move what may be a less interesting text for some learners into a more interesting category.
– Using a reading or listening text which may not engage some learners in terms of what it is about but which may contain examples of an area of language they have been struggling with, and to which you can point them.
– Using stronger learners as peer teachers when covering an area of language which is known to some but not to others.
– Approaching the same language area from different angles – some learners are given a diagrammatic explanation, some a written explanation, some listen to an explanation, some work out the rule for themselves, some hear it in a song, some in a cartoon, and so on. (Before you say it, no, this is not learning styles, as that would involve doing a hokey, Sunday supplement magazine test first and then forcing students to do whichever way was their style. I am merely advocating doing things in different ways, which is a completely different thing.)
– Using creative, open ended activities and letting them go where the learners want to take them: things like writing stories and making films.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the functional stuff at all. There is absolutely a place for dealing with lost children in a department store, or a new job at the supermarket. But it shouldn’t be limited to this: lessons can be interesting and motivating but not necessarily “linked to learners lives”. (This isn’t an excuse for peddling that crappy old coursebook exercise which you just happen to love, mind you, featuring middle class teenagers playing computer games as you teach E3 adult ESOL to migrant workers and settled migrants claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. I’m saying here that there should simply be a balance between the functional and the creative. Indeed the very focussed, real “functional” work can be incredibly motivating, like preparing genuine letters of complaint about a local issue of importance to the learners which are then sent to the relevant authorities.


For me, at least, decorating will forever be a chore, and I am unlikely to get much better at it as time goes on. I think that there is such a thing as a talent or a knack for something, from slapping paint on a wall to learning to speak English to particle physics. If I factor in this innate absence of skill at tasks involving hand-eye co-ordination (watch me try to cut a straight line and you’ll see what I mean), and combine this with my initial lack of motivation then you end up with a lack of success. And there is nothing more antithetical to motivation than failure.

(The room, by the way, looks OK. And all I feel is relief that I’ve not got to do it again for a few years…)


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