Jan 9, 2013

more on motivation (final part)

So where does a teacher not have control? There are the unpredictable personal factors: you can't control what kind of mood a student walks into the classroom with -- it wasn't your fault he just had an argument at work. Of course you have influence once they are in the classroom and you make decisions as to how to deal with that situation.
On a more permanent level, where the teacher usually has no control is more to do with organisational aspects of courses and it is these that can make a teacher's life so difficult in how they limit the potential of the teacher’s skills, experience and talent, and can ultimately erode the teacher's motivation and sense of self efficacy. I’m talking primarily of class-size and class streaming.

Earlier we looked at modality -- if the modality of learning is to respond to most learners’ needs and preferences, by which we mean a primarily speaking-based lesson format, large groups are pretty much destined to impair the potential of lessons in providing interest and motivation. When groups go beyond a certain number, say more than 12-15, teachers have to bend over backwards and resort to a variety of strategies to keep people talking and communicating.

Under CLT, pair-work has become a stalwart of lesson procedure and this can work well - or it can become tedious, dispiriting and of little use. Many students don’t like spending more than a limited time with a peer when they have a real teacher in the classroom. Nonetheless, pair-work has become orthodox practice -- it's bad if you don't do it – but it is more useful and valid as a class management strategy than as a teaching strategy.
Working on projects or tasks in groups is another common form of activity that has been imported from other teaching situations and where it in line with the idea of developing teamwork skills and learner autonomy. But whether this is within the remit of an English course for adult learners is open to question, especially where developing speaking skills is the declared priority and where lesson-time is very limited.

So where the teacher has limited influence over motivation is in creating workable conditions for successful and relevant learning – this is where the school has the key role. With large classes, teachers and students are left pretty much to make the best they can of things, but whatever happens there will be little room for useful speaking for the majority of students.

Well prepared, well organised and enthusiastic teachers will be able to offer interesting enough lessons for all - and very challenging and productive lessons for a few. Poorly prepared and unenthusiastic teachers will sit back and watch as their students proceed with the tasks that have been issued them. The ‘good’ students will do as much as they can in their own time and they will be able to bring that useful learning into their lessons with them. Those who have no time or no inclination will just float along with the current that isn't moving very fast if anywhere at all.
In many situations (public education), large class-size is a simple fact of life, so speaking will always have little space and students will have little real benefit in terms of improving communication skills. However, for private schools class size is a decision they can make. Clearly there are financial implications. In situations where there is little competition, schools are free to fill classes with paying students and make a hefty earning -- on the other hand they might decide, responsibly, to limit class size for students’ (and teachers’) benefit and be willing to accept lower margins on earning.

So it is very likely that students will be happier and therefore more motivated in a small group. But it's not just down to numbers. A large group of students all at similar levels and with similar aptitudes is more likely to be a useful context for learning than a small group of students who are very poorly matched -- this is basically setting up a class for failure and frustration. Again for very many teachers, having to deal with mixed ability or mixed level classes is a fact of life but it needn't be like that. Schools too often tend to pass the buck and present teachers with largely unworkable conditions, the idea being that if they are trained teachers it's their job to sort things out. Forming well-graded and well-streamed groups of students involves far more hard work for a school than bunging people together out of convenience. The thing is that most people are used to mixed ability groups, because that's what happens at primary school and secondary school, so even students tend to accept this as simply being ‘normal’ and tend not to complain too much. Again the result here is that much of the teacher's time and effort is spent simply managing lessons rather than getting on with good focused teaching -- often teachers become events organisers or entertainers more than anything else.
Very often placement testing is a perfunctory ritual: standardised multiple-choice tests, often online for convenience again, and, maybe, a brief and superficial oral test. More often than not the outcome of this test is pretty predictable with students ending up in one of the catch-all nets: elementary, pre-intermediate, intermediate or advanced. I don't know how many people I've met who have been stuck in a constant loop of intermediate courses.

The school then has the primary role in establishing the right conditions for good learning and the right conditions for student motivation to remain intact. So here could be the list of key components which can allow motivation the highest likelihood of survival:

• Workability of conditions
• Skill and intuition of teacher
• Appropriateness of method
• Relevance of content

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