Motivation Lights a Fire and Other Myths of Learning

A pneumatic device built by (the slightly
tragic) Joseph Priestly, whose careful
observations of combustion eventually
led to the demise of the Phlogiston Theory.

When I was in high school, I was slightly mad about phlogiston.  Phlogiston theory, for anyone who doesn’t share my interest in discredited scientific ideas, was the theory that things burned because they contained a special element called, not surprisingly phlogiston.  When something was on fire, the fire eventually burned out because there was no more phlogiston left in the substance.  Now let’s say you took a piece of wood, which everyone was sure was just chock full of phlogiston, lit it on fire, waited a few seconds, and then covered it in a glass globe.  After a few moments, the fire would go out.  But the wood still had plenty of phlogiston in it.  Why did the fire go out?  Well, if chemists at the time had know about how combustion really worked, they would have been able to say that the fire had used up all the available oxygen in the air.  But the scientists didn’t know how combustion really worked.  They thought it was all about phlogiston.  So they came up with a different answer.  Air could only hold so much phlogiston.  When you covered up the wood, you limited the amount of air and soon the air was saturated with phlogiston.  It became phlogisticated.  It was a clever workaround for a pretty major bump in their theory.  And it was also almost the complete opposite of how combustion actually worked.

* * *

Yesterday I sat down with my notebook to watch Jill Hadfield present on Motivating our learners: actualizing the vision (the presentation is available on the session list on the IATEFL site).  I’ve never met Jill Hadfield in person, but I certainly would like to.  She has a nice, easy going way of speaking.  My wife was listening in as I was taking notes and said at one point, “That woman sounds smart, but she has a warm voice.”  Jill had picked up the concept of future ideal selves from Self Psychology and modified it so it could work as a self-awareness raising tool in the language classroom.  When I was a social worker in Chicago, we used some similar techniques, what we called forward thinking, to help our clients reduce risky behavior and improve their quality of life.  So I actually thought the basic idea of having students go through a fairly structured process of imagining their ideal L2 self and then carefully mapping a route to that self was a great idea.  I’ll touch on some of the greatness in Jill’s presentation very soon.  But first I’m going to get a bit nit-picky.

Jill started off her presentation by talking about motivation.  In fact, one of her first slides defined motivation as, “the explanation of the reasons behind human behavior.”  And she pointed out that motivation was an important concept because motivation was, “the most common term teachers and students use to explain what causes success or failure in learning.”  And here is where I kind of found myself getting a bit lost as to what exactly was being talked about.  You see, if we know the reasons for someone’s behaviors, I’m not exactly sure we need to get into the whole concept of motivation at all.  Let’s take a specific example.  Let’s say student A decides not to study for a test.  You could ask the student why they didn’t study, and they might say, “I didn’t feel motivated.”  But if we dig a bit further and try and get at why they didn’t feel motivated, the student might be able to give us all kinds of concrete reasons.  They felt overwhelmed by the amount of material they needed to learn before the test.  The test material was so difficult they didn’t know how to study.  The material was so easy, they didn’t think they needed to study.  But in all these instances, the problem isn’t really with motivation.  The problem is born out of the student’s failure to see how to be successful and the teacher’s lack of guidance on how to take the steps necessary to be successful.  The idea of motivation adds an extra layer to the situation, and like most extra layers added to things, it obscures as opposed to reveals.

But in a way, this is a minor point, and one that I think Jill inadvertently makes herself, because once Jill got past the idea of why students should generate an ideal L2 self (motivation), the whole idea of motivation dropped out of presentation.  Instead, it focused on how to ensure that ideal self was realistic, then discussed how to help learners break down the becoming into a series of concrete attainable steps.  Here are just some of the really rich and novel ideas Jill touched on for helping students get to that ideal L2 self:

  • Counterbalancing the vision: it’s not enough for a learner to just imagine what kind of L2 self they want to become, they also have to have think about the kind of things that could get in the way of achieving that goal.  Taking time out to use our experience as teachers and to help students identify common road blocks and ways to overcome them on their way to their ideal self is going to make the learning process that much smoother and that much more successful.
  • Unifying the vision: not only do learners have an ideal self, they also have an “Ought To Self,” the self that’s composed of their ideas of what peers, parents, and friends think they should be and do.  As teachers, we can help our students listen to some of the useful suggestions that this Ought To Self has to offer on reaching an ideal L2 self.  Things like good study habits, asking for help, and talking out in class, are the kinds of advice the Ought To Self might be aching to offer up if our students listen.
  • When students have an image of their ideal L2 self and have translated that self into a set of goals, then a teacher should help compare those goals with the course syllabus.  Some of the goals will be attainable within the syllabus.  Others will require work outside of the classroom.  And if, as a teacher, you’re flexible enough, you might be able to find room in the syllabus to help students attain goals which couldn’t have been anticipated before you met the real breathing dreaming learner who actually showed up in your class.
  • Think about group dynamics and have your students think about group dynamics as well.  Every student is going to have their own ideal L2 self.  And they aren’t necessarily going in the same direction.  So getting learners to think about and take part in the negotiation necessary for everyone to be moving forward even if they are heading in different directions seems like a very reasonable step to take to make sure that as many students as possible are going to be satisfied with what is going on in class.

These were just a few of the ideas that Jill dealt with in her 30 minute presentation.  There’s much more.  And I’m hoping that this blog post has got you interested.  Just as I’m hoping that IATEFL puts the presentation back up on the Sessions page of their site.  It was a presentation full of thoughtful ways to get your students to be more thoughtful about their learning.  And even better, it was filled with clear and memorable examples about how learners can really map, in small achievable steps, a path to their ideal self.  And I think small achievable steps, much more than motivation, is what matters when it comes to language learning.  Yeah, maybe ‘motivation’ is the most used word when teachers and students talk about successful language learning.  But at one time, phlogiston was the most used word when people talked about fire.  And as far as I can tell, neither phlogiston nor motivation can tell us very much about the real reasons for why sometimes the fires of learning are more than enough to light up every corner of our classrooms.


6 thoughts on “Motivation Lights a Fire and Other Myths of Learning

  1. Thank you, Kevin. I've been blogging this week about how an activity from Hadfield I first used 23 years or so ago is still alive and transformed today. had no idea she was still presenting, and so loaded with phlogiston, and on such profound themes. I do hope her notes become available. And meanwhile, I am in awe of your writing voice. I think I used to have one; so let's say I'm still in the process of relocating it. You're an inspiration. Thanks again. Tom Randolph


  2. Hi Tom,My clumsy fingers (actually, I shouldn't blame it on my fingers…clumsy me) erased your original comment. Sorry about that. Amazing to think that you've taken an activity and adapted it for your specific classes for 23 years. But I think that's what reflective teaching let's us do. We can continue to tweak and find enjoyment and value in activities and tasks that can soon seem to grow thin if we simply drop them down on our students. Thanks for the feedback about my voice. Hope I can keep developing it and find a way to make my posts a bit clearer.Hope you have a great weekend.Kevin


  3. Hi Steve,Thanks for the positive feedback. And for anyone reading this comment, Steve puts together the amazing JetWit site at's a collection of materials for former (and current) JETs, assistant language teachers who taught in Japan on a government program. But the site is full of interesting articles that would appeal to just about anyone interested in Japan or teaching. Well worth a visit.Kevin


  4. I read your post about couple of days ago and I hope to be able to watch the session as well. For now what you have written has been really insightful for me as I am going through some group dynamic issues with couple of teens group right now, especially this part:"Taking time out to use our experience as teachers and to help students identify common road blocks and ways to overcome them on their way to their ideal self is going to make the learning process that much smoother and that much more successful.":) Rose


  5. Hi Rose,Sorry about the late reply. Glad you found something useful in the post. I also think helping students identify what's going to get in the way of learning is an important job we have as teachers and one we sometimes forget about when we are focused on "what we want the students to learn" as opposed to "how our students go about learning." But it's a delicate balance. Our students are, in the end, responsible for their own learning. That means they are going to fall into the trap of poor study habits or unfortunate choices. The best we can do is hope they learn from those choices. But it doesn't make it any easier to watch.Kevin


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