Motivation (and MOOCs)

I’ve got to admit, it’s just after a bank holiday Monday, at the arse end of a below average kind of academic year, so probably not the best time to be looking up another MOOC to have a go at. Still, I got a little prod from Twitter and thought I’d have a little look at the OCTEL MOOC. it’s here, in case you were wondering:

I was looking over the first couple of pages of the course, happy to note that there didn’t seem to be any kind of formal sign up, and while I was looking I worked out what the issue was. It wasn’t the course design, as such. It was more the question of commitment, and in particular commitment to the content. I was probably just mildly intrigued at what the course was about, and sort of found myself thinking well, I’ll have a look tomorrow, maybe.

Of course, this means I probably won’t, which is a shame because it would probably be good for me to do something like this. I have a dust covered level 3 e-learning qual from about seven years ago, which could do with a little updating. Unfortunately, however, “it’s good for you” is rarely a tremendous motivating force. See also: eating more cabbage and fewer biscuits, giving up smoking and doing more exercise. These things are all good for you but not always enjoyable, at least not immediately, and thus will never be all that motivating.

Certainly motivation needs more than simply being necessary or useful. This is one of the issues for ESOLlearners, of course, particularly when they reach the intermediate plateau when the language level achieved is generally enough to do most things they need to do, and the extrinsic motivation has to become more focussed. The motivating focus for some ESOL learners at Level 1and Level 2 is usually very directed: a specific aim or goal is often there, for example to gain a higher qualification or better employment prospects. But that doesn’t account for all the learners at that level, of course, and for some the motivation to learn is nothing so simple as “to get a job”. To find out about their motivation needs more careful digging, and sometimes motivation can come from something else.

In some respects, there’s not a lot us ESOL teachers can do to get people to learn better. Of most of the factors affecting language acquisition (I refer you to chapter 3 of “How Languages Are Learned” by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada.) teachers can only really directly affect motivation. And even then, the only way teachers can influence motivation is to help learners work out what they actually do want out of learning English.

Or is it?

Most people are familiar with the idea of extrinsic motivation (i.e. From some external pressure, like needing a job) and intrinsic motivation (i.e. From an interest in English and learning English). Extrinsic motivation alone, as you can tell from my inability to do things “because they are good for me” is not enough, and neither is the level of intrinsic motivation high enough for this. As teachers, it’s probably more often the absence of these which cause problems, and we are presented with the challenge of motivating learners who just are bothered about being there.

I first came across the idea of instrumental motivation in the same chapter in Lightbown and Spada, but have since encountered in other places. It’s the idea that this is the only motivation that a teacher can have any effect on: making the manner and the content of the teaching process motivating. That is, we have to make our lessons as interesting as we can. This could be through choosing interesting contexts for language teaching, based on what we know about the learners. And no, I don’t mean contexts linked to the extrinsic motivation: the functional “Mrs Khan goes to the Post Office” type of lesson may be motivating at Entry 1, but less so at Level 2, even if it is “Mrs Khan writes a formal letter of complaint to the local council about the closure of vital local services like the Post Office.” There’s nothing wrong here, but it’s not enough on its own. It needs to be delivered in an interesting way: perhaps, if you are up to it, a touch of humour or silliness, or structuring lessons so that the main teaching point appears as a surprise. Basically, I think ESOL can get a bit po-faced and serious, and sometimes we need a bit of flair and humour to make lessons more interesting.

So anyway, back to the MOOC. Having dipped my toe in one before, I’m a bit wary of having another dip. There’s a bit more of an expectation to go and participate in some of the interactive stuff, which is good, pedagogically speaking, but part of me wants to just read and watch and not bother if I get bored. But without going and getting in involved somehow I can’t find out, really, if I’m not interested. So. I will dip my toe in again and see how it pans out. I’m a week late, but hey, I can find some space. Or maybe I can at least somehow game the first week, and catch up….

Eleven Questions, times two.

Having been a gloomy bugger these last few weeks, it was nice to be tagged by both Steve Brown and Genevieve White on their blogs for the recent run of blog posts where you get tagged by a fellow blogger, write 11 random facts about yourself, answer eleven questions posted by that blogger, then tag eleven others to answer element of your own questions.

I’m going to cheat on the last of these, as pretty much all of the eleven bloggers I would mention have already been tagged and posted, as far as I can tell. So I’m going to finish with eleven questions, and leave it open to you whether or not you answer them. Or maybe you just think about them for yourself and never ask them. Up to you.

Right. Eleven random facts.

1. I am the oldest of four boys, all more or less two and a half years older than the next youngest, all with Biblical names, although mine is the only Old Testament one.

2. Never, ever say to me “help yourself” unless you really really mean it.

3. My reading swings between very real non-fiction and utterly unreal fantasy/SF.

4. Both my children share names with jazz greats, but weren’t named specifically after them.

5. Depending on brand of shoe, my shoe size is 12 or 13. I therefore hate it when a shop assistant brings me an eleven, “in case it fits” and consequently buy all my shoes online.

6. Drinks, if you ever meet me in a bar, in order of preference: interesting proper beer, Guinness, mass produced lager, grassy-lemony dry white wine, thick and dirty red wine. Thanks. But just wine if you come to visit.

7. I have a yellow front door.

8. I grew up in Banbury in Oxfordshire, but was born in Swindon. The former is famous for a nursery rhyme, the latter for…. for…. erm, well, I’ll get back to you.

9. My favourite country and only destination for emigration is New Zealand.

10. I am an atheist, although more of the live and let live sort than the radical “all religion is evil” variety.

11. I ride a bike mainly for fun and commuting, with exercise as the useful side effect, rather than the other way round.

So, Steve’s questions:

1 What motivated you to start working in education?
English. I like the language, I like doing stuff with it and, if I’m honest, it all really started as a way to make a living while I worked on my fantasy of writing a novel. I’ve still not finished the novel.

2 What is it about teaching that makes it a “profession”?
Hmm. Tricky. I know what it isn’t. It isn’t about being a member of professional organisations, or about managed professional processes, or about who you work for. Professionalism is a state of mind, and is reflected in the way in which you are perceived by people around you.

3 Is language a subject?
Yes. Is that too easy? It’s a subject especially when studied objectively as a thing to be learned rather than as a thing you need to use for a particular purpose. It’s the difference between knowing the way to do something and actually being able to do it. Cf. know-that vs know-how.

4 What can you not do that you would like to do?
Speak Turkish. It’s an agglutinative language with infixes, which is the sort of thing that excites me. I’d also like to be able to repair a bike beyond just the odd flat tyre and adjustment.

5 What do you do that you wish you didn’t do?
Eat too many sweet things.

6 What’s the best bit about your current job?
I’ll come back to you later on that one.

7 What “big idea” are you currently turning over in your mind?
Not so much of a big idea, but a big reflection. Are there universals in education, things which can be applied, consistently, effectively and without exception to all types of education? My instinct is no, but I think people would like the answer to be yes.

8 What’s the best place you’ve lived in?
Devonport, Auckland. I had to travel across the bay by ferry to get to work. The local pub served good food and better beer. There was a lovely second hand bookshop, super friendly library and a small local cinema. We could take a quiet evening stroll up the side of a long extinct volcano and see lovely views to a not so long extinct volcanic island. There was a beach five minutes walk from my front door. An hour or so’s drive in any direction, more or less, took you into places of stunning natural beauty. If there’s anything in that list which is unpleasant, do let me know.

9 Who is the most annoying person on television at the moment?
Television? Since the advent of iPlayer and similar on demand TV, I have started being deeply picky about the TV I watch, so I can’t think of anyone particularly annoying! Possibly some of the people on the very early morning Cbeebies programmes, the ones which are a bit dated, and with which I associate sitting with children and feeling guilty about being too tired to read or do something creative.

10 When did you last learn a new word, and what was it?
uhtceare and I read it in the Etymologicon, but properly demonstrated learning it, that is, formally produced it without looking it up or checking it first, the other week in my especially gloomy blog post.

11 Where would you rather be right now?
It’s the Christmas holiday, my favourite of all the breaks across the academic year, and I’m at home, and am quite happy where I am!

And Genevieve’s questions:

1 When and where are you happiest?
At the moment I’d be very specific and say in my front room, with my family, opening presents on Christmas morning!

2 What makes you want to cry?
All sorts. Any time children are being badly treated, in particular.

3 Do you think Scottish independence is a good idea?
For Scotland, probably yes, for the rest of the UK, probably no. But I’m quite happy, personally, for Scotland to be independent.

4 What is your unsung talent?
Tricky. I have none that I can think of…

5 What is your all time favourite ELT activity?
The NASA game (in Penny Ur, Discussions that Work) or anything like that. I really like that sort of free speaking task which generates lots of discussion and lots of language. I also like just walking in and seeing what happens, although that doesn’t quite count as an activity, really!

6 Where do you write your blogs?
Using an iPad, mainly either sitting on my sofa in the bay window of my living room, or on the train to work. (This is why, just for the record, some of my posts may appear in full 1000+ word form during work time, as they upload when I hit the work networks.)

7 With which literary character do you identify most?
Hmmm, tricky. I really thought about this, as a reader, and I couldn’t pin it down to one character. Depending on my mood and inclination, then sometimes John Wheelwright, the narrator in A Prayer for Owen Meany, sometimes Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (a good novel, but his Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is awesome, as in awe inspiring, as in probably my favourite book ever in the history of books), and more often than not the Gruffalo.

8 If you were an ELT teaching approach which would you be and why?
Dogme isn’t really an approach, but it does reflect me in lots of ways, in that I haven’t planned my life, but tend to work things out as I go along.

9 What would your last ever meal be?
Cheese, bread and pickles. With beer.

10 Where do you think you’ll be ten years from now?
In ten years I’ll be balder and greyer with two teenage children, so who knows. I generally like where I am now, but I’d like to be writing more, maybe with my name on the cover of something. More for kudos than cash, but any money would be nice.

11 Who would play you in a film about your life?
I used to say Kenneth Branagh about the time when be made that version of Frankenstein, because we both had long bushy ginger blond hair and terrible beards, and my girlfriend at the time fancied him. Now, though, I’m not so sure!


To finish, then, my questions.

1. What is the best thing about teaching?
2. …and the worst?
3. What made you start blogging?
4. Have you ever said or done anything online which you regret? (Tell us more…)
5. If you were sent to teach in some remote, non-computer connected corner of the world, what book would you take with you? Why?
6. Do you think that in five years you will be a better teacher, a different teacher, or just the same?
7. What would you do if you had to stop being a teacher?
8. Which song or piece of music affects you most deeply? Why?
9. What is your worst habit?
10. Are there any specific experiences or events which have shaped you as a teacher?
11. How many students in a class is too many?


I have, it has to be said, reached the end of my tether. I’ve had a go at co-operative, collaborative activities. I’ve tried lecturing. (for a few minutes, anyway).  I’ve tried “Just sit down and do this worksheet and bugger the consequences”.  But the only thing which has so far managed to engage the brains of my Monday afternoon 16-18 class for more than five minutes is competition.

I hate competition. I’m not intrinsically competitive, otherwise, if I were, I would be writing a blog about being the youngest head of OFSTED in history. (I am big headed, mind you). I really don’t get satisfaction out of being “better” than someone else, and generally find that attitude to be obnoxious, and, well, childish. I do get the occasional twinge of competitive envy, it must be said, but it passes quickly.

I do use competitiveness. I use it a lot at home, for example to get my children to go upstairs at bath time (“Last one up the stairs is a ….”) consciously choosing “don’t be last” rather than “be first” not for any particular ideological reason, but because otherwise you end up with tears of “I wasn’t first…” which is frankly a bloody nightmare in a three year old at bedtime.

I don’t use it for adults, at least not often, partly because “who can be first to..” is pretty juvenile and simplistic as a motivational tool and ESOL adults get enough patronising crap thrown at them in their educational careers  (starting with Comic Sans and finishing with “We’d love to invite you onto our vocational course but your Level 1 Functional Skills qualification isn’t the same because you’re an ESOL student”).

But the teens seem to love it. Or at least it spurs those who need the spur on to participate properly, and has a negligible effect on those learners who don’t need the extra motivation. So competition it is.  This led me to thinking about how to engage them more fully in more complex activities across the course, and, after reading this I thought I would try gamification as a means to engage the learners, especially as some of the stuff they are supposed to do for the PSD element of the course is impressively worthy and well meaning, and therefore excruciatingly dull.

Gamification in education works on the principle that there are rules and rewards in a (computer) game model and that learners engage more with this because there is clear structure, clear boundaries and the possibility of winning. It takes all the things that make you play Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto V for hours on end and applies them to the classroom. Computer games in particular are increasingly complex in their systems, and even something like Angry Birds has enough complexity built in to make you play more. I am a terrible sucker for Angry Birds, and will, when prompted after completing the whole game (all of them so far), go back and try to unlock extra levels and rewards. Game design is complex stuff.

If all this seems to be a bit cheap and popularist, consider this. In order to be successful at a game, you have to learn things. In order to win at Grand Theft Auto you have to learn how to steal stuff, pimp cars and generally be unpleasant to people. In Angry Birds you need to learn that the blue one is useless, and that in the Star Wars version, at the end of the Moon of Endor stage, there are two pigs hiding in the bunker. You have to learn, and you learn by playing. So this can be applied to education. All the teacher does is set up challenges and tasks so that learners have to learn about your subject in order to win the game.

I have started with a few basic principles. There must be systems, rules and boundaries. There must be rewards. There needs to be a winner, or at least some sort of hierarchy of success. I also want something which can involve fairly complex ICT activities. I want there to be an element of unpredictability and student freedom, but also a set up where I have some control over proceedings. I must admit there are some slightly sinister behaviourist elements here with which I am a little uncomfortable, but I am building my own project on collaboration and shared responsibility (the whole team wins or the whole team loses) with the hope that this inspires a degree of commitment to collaboration.

So, here’s the game.

I’ve nicknamed it the New Atlantis Project and it follows the SimCity model. Students work in small teams to design and develop a new country in an archipelago continent called New Atlantis. There are enough countries for one per group plus one extra (for me, later on). The teams will then use their countries to compete with each other in the face of different challenges which I will be presenting each week. The first week involved designing the countries, their flags and their general layout. We did some preparatory search and reading work on different countries, (ICT – carry out online research)  before forming up into groups to develop the islands and the layout. Rewards will be in the form of points which can be used to buy resources for the country (ICT – spreadsheets) and challenges will take the form of wars, economic disasters, natural disasters, political uprisings and so on. Points will be awarded for how effectively learners deal with it, which they need to do collectively (PSD – working as a group). I’m thinking that the challenges will be presented to the group in the form of newspapers and articles which they then need to respond to.  In order to respond, learners will need to produce reports, spreadsheets, presentations, and participate in other non-technical challenges in order to gain points. My own role, in the initial stages, is guide and general purpose deity. I plan to sit outside the game to begin with but later I have the extra island and the challenges that that could bring.

I have no real idea how long it could last. It might fizzle and die, especially if I judge the challenges wrongly. However, if I get the challenges right then this could run for some time. I don’t plan to spend every hour of every session on this, of course, but rather it will take up perhaps an hour or so of each lesson, or provide a framework to hang other content on. We will see how it goes, and, as ever, the starting point and the finishing point will, of course, be the learners.

Let’s Get Critical… About Resources

Next time you go to a class, or training session, do a little stock take.

Just before you print, have a look at your resources. I’m assuming that, as a professional, they are well made and attractive, and show a range of lifestyles and ethnic groupings.

Smile, and enjoy your lovely work. After all it probably took you a good amount of time to prepare.

Then look again more critically.

Ask yourself this: how much actual learning will occur as a result of using this resource? Could I achieve that learning as well (or better) without it?

If the answer to the last question is “yes” then don’t press print. I’m thinking of lessons where every learner has the same picture printed in expensive colour ink while an interactive whiteboard stands empty in the background; or lessons where the teacher painstakingly creates a weekly diary of two imaginary people for a speaking activity when they have a room full of actual real people, if not with diaries, then at least lives they could put into one. I’m thinking of those lessons where there is a new piece of paper for every single stage of the lesson.

And double siding doesn’t excuse you either. This isn’t about saving paper, although that is a bonus.

Look at the handout. Is it actually useful as a revision tool? Does it work better than just having the content displayed, drawn, or failing that just printed once and held up? Does it work better than using ideas and content generated by the learners?

If the answer is yes, then print and copy. But I reckon about 70% of bits of paper in ESOL classrooms could be avoided if we looked at it just a bit more carefully and critically.

And if you’re really unconvinced , simply ask yourself, “what would I do if I didn’t have it? Would it be a worse lesson?”

Or if you feel really brave, just walk in without it.

You might surprise yourself.

Learning Styles

Here’s the theory, in a nutshell of nutshells. Each of us has a unique and individual approach to learning, and instruction that caters to that approach will help us to be more successful learners.

Let’s take a simple example. Visual Auditory & Kineasetheic learning styles are very much as they say on the tin. The principle here is that you assess to what extent a learner prefers input and practice in any of the three modes, then you include more activities in that vein to help them. It’s simple, practical and, and this is important, can be quickly and easily linked to classroom practice, without too much effort (visual learners like to see pictures and displays, auditory like to listen, kinaesthetic learners need to do stuff physically.) So far so sexy. It’s an appealing idea and one which has taken root quite impressively in the general defintions of “good practice”.

Except, and this is a big except. It’s hogwash. Lets do a little slightly unethical experiment together. You start a course and you identify certain learners in your group as being primarily visual, but the rest are more kinaesthetic. You change your teaching for one week to match the visual learners, which ought to disadvantage the non-visual learners. You then test said group on the things covered. If learning styles theory is correct, then the visually dominant learners will get higher scores on the test. Does this sound likely? Is this really as intuitive to you as a teacher as the simplistic theory would suggest? For me, this sounds highly unlikely, nigh on impossible.

And if you are thinking “but what about Honey & Mumford  / Dunn and Dunn, etc.”then just try the same thought experiemnt but change the labelling. Does it still feel right? Here’s the report. Work it out for yourself from this summarising comment: “unreliable, invalid, and have a negligible impact on pedagogy”.

Aha, say the pro-LSers, but you are being too simplistic with your analysis. Learning is complex and varied process, with an enormous number of variables that such a simple analysis cannot possibly consider. Well, say I, absolutely right, and you have just put the brick wall in front of your own theoretical grounding. Of course learning is a massively complex and difficult subject to make sweeping conclusions about, and this is exactly what learning styles theories, in any form, do – they make sweeping statements that a learner will automatically fit one narrow bracket, and that is the end of it. We learn lots of things in lots of different ways – while there are parallels, I learned to drive in a different way to how I learned to use a computer, and to how I learned to speak as a child, and to how I learned to look after my children, and to how I learned to teach. You, as my educator, cannot make a sweeping assumption about how I learned based on anything – if anything, you are doing me a disservice by calling me a theorist-pragmatist visual reflector or whatever. I am not quantifiable so simply!

It goes on, of course. People in SMTs and inspectorates are reluctant to let go, having championed such an approach for so long. So they say, when confronted with bald facts and open, but supported defiance, “well, it’s all about teaching styles, and using a variety of techniques and methods in the classroom.” Well, du-uh. That is teaching – making lessons as varied, interesting, motivating as we possibly can. That’s nothing to do with learning styles. This is like the argument that homeopaths usually use when confronted with the fact they are also talking hogwash: “we consider the whole person, and anyway mainstream medicine is rubbish” The two things are entirely separate issues and can’t be confused as parts of the same arguments. Yes there are aspects of mainstream medicine that are ruibbish, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that homeopathy is bunkum. Ditto creative and motivating teaching that just happens to use three of our senses, or different ways of explaining or approaching the learning from different angles to make a lesson varied, not because we learn in neat categories of learning style.

Here’s a quote that also says a lot about learning styles, Peter Honey of Honey & Mumford fame: “I’ve been amazed. When we first launched our materials I expected a limited take-up from a niche market, but it sold very well right from the off, and the market has been buoyant ever since.” TES Online The market. These have been designed by businessmen to make money, not hard working educational researchers. Which says a lot.

Anyone for Brain Gym?