It’s that time of year again, where classes are winding down and courses are effectively finished in all but name and teachers round the world are looking for interesting things to do with their students for the last few lessons before the holidays. Last night, the student who showed up (everyone else having presumably decided that having done the exam there was nothing left to learn…) and I ended up watching the TED talk “What makes us feel good about our work?” by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely.
Ariely has four talks up on TED at the moment, all of which are good value and are worth watching – some interesting ideas on product differentiation for the managers amongst you – but the talk on the nature of our work struck some chords, not just with memories of the life before ELT as a faceless administrative drone, but also with their applicability to an educational setting. The talk should be embedded into this post below, or you can click on this link: Dan Ariely – What makes us feel good about our work?
The key theme that Ariely discusses in the talk is that of motivation – specifically what motivates us to do good work. The three main answers to that question that he identifies (or at least the three main answers I identified from his talk) are: Meaning, Acknowledgement and Pride. Which also makes a handy acronym…
So what does the MAP to good work look like?
People work better when they perceive that there is some meaning attached to the work they are undertaking, or that their work is applicable in a wider context even if it is no longer required for it’s original task. The applications in ELT are fairly obvious, but worth restating: Students work better if they understand why they are doing something. Communicating the aims and the activities of a lesson to the students allows them to do this and probably the simplest way of doing this is to write up a lesson menu on the board, which outlines this information. In all honesty, this is a habit I have not yet fully formed – I try to remember to do this, but I don’t always succeed.
Meaning however, doesn’t just come about from lesson aims, it is the lesson’s wider applicability that can provide this. Ariely found that even if workers knew their work was being discarded or disregarded for it’s original purpose, if they could apply their work to situations outside the original context then it didn’t matter. Value then, is a transferable commodity and meaning is derived from perceived value. In ELT therefore, the things we do in class, which are often taken out of context and presented in isolation, should be linked back to situations or contexts that the learners find valuable. The obvious point to make this link (at least to me) would be as part of the language presentation. If the teacher is clarifying use of a target form, it makes sense that the use relates to a context in which it can be used, which can be clarified with concept questions: “Do you ever negotiate with your husband / wife / partner? What do you negotiate about? Do you ever argue about who does what? Could you use this form to do that? How? Why? can you give me some examples?”
Ariely’s example experiment where volunteers find pairs of letters on the page and hand them into the experimenter, who either acknowledges the work, ignores the work or simply shreds it in front of their eyes; had me thinking of an immediate parallel in the classroom: homework. I’ve written before on the nature of homework and making it useful for learners, but here I couldn’t escape the vision of myself conducting a conversation with some of the learners in the class while going round and collecting in completed homework tasks and not acknowledging the effort that went into the work. Just taking it in and adding it to the pile. Which according to Ariely is just as bad as taking a match to it and laughing maniacally as I do so.
It is a simple thing and no doubt many readers are thinking “Well duh” at this point or perhaps thinking that with homework the acknowledgment comes as part of the assessment and correction. Ariely however, would probably differ. Some acknowledgement of the effort at the moment of submission, it seems, would go a long way to improving the learners’ motivation to complete further tasks quickly and well. This is presumably true with in-class effort as well as homework tasks. I’ve recently been experimenting with classroom behaviour management software and have found that obvious acknowledgment of good behaviour (in this case through the awarding of points) AND making a point of telling the student that this is happening, has led to a drastic reduction of L1 in the class as well as generally improved behaviour (though as we reach the end of the academic year, this is starting to slip a bit now). Praise is not only important, it is a necessary part of motivating our students to improved performance.
People are proud of the efforts they have made, even when the outcome of those efforts is not so spectacular to an external observer. Good young learner teachers probably know this instinctively and I’m fortunate to work with some very good YL teachers. In short, even though as teachers we might be able to turn a critical eye towards our learners’ work – at least some of the time, we probably shouldn’t. It does of course depend on the purpose of the activity. If for example, we’re focusing on spoken or written production of a particular form, then the focus will be primarily on accuracy and a correction or feedback stage is required. If however, we’re just having a chat or the focus is on fluency, then maybe not. The point is that our sense of achievement does not relate to the product we generate it relates to the time and effort we put into the process. As teachers therefore, maybe we need to acknowledge that process and reward the effort that went into it as much as we do with the result. After all, I know one of my personal pedagogical hates are the students who coast, or who phone in their performances. I doubt I’m alone in not minding so much what the finished product is like if I know that the student has tried their best – it’s when I know they haven’t that I get annoyed…