A little more conversation, a little less action, please: student motivation and the intrinsic value of doing English

Mark Enser wrote recently in the TES about how the conversation around student motivation needs to change; since then, thoughts about student motivation have been top of mind. However, Enser’s piece merely resurrected old ghosts.

A little more conversation, a little less action, please: student motivation and the intrinsic value of doing English
Photo by Justyn Warner / Unsplash

Mark Enser wrote recently in the TES about how the conversation around student motivation needs to change; since then, thoughts about student motivation have been top of mind. However, Enser’s piece merely resurrected old ghosts. Earlier this year, I’d written an assignment for The Chartered Teacher Programme about how students don’t seem to value English in the way they do other subjects, such as those under the STEM umbrella. More recently, I was discussing the British education system with my Y8 class, and many of them were of a mind that subjects like English were at worst less valuable than others and at best part of a wider view of one’s time at school as a means to an end: that end being the awarding of exam grades. This hit a nerve: how could these students not see education as valuable in itself; how could they not want to study English just because?

Before I continue, I’m going to clarify a few things. Not all of the students felt like the above; indeed, as we discussed, many of them broadened their views. But their initial thinking was perhaps symptomatic of something wider in the national psyche. What is learning for? Do most see it as the rememberance of materials — the stuff of which being largely of arbitrary importance — in order to pass terminal tests? If so, how can we change this thinking? I’m not one for soapboxing, but I think that this kind of thinking has to change: we must appreciate learning as important for its own sake, because otherwise we devalue it. If it is a mere stepping stone, it is forgotten once bypassed. Instead, the subjects we teach — and I’m focussing on English, because it is my specialism — have intrinsic value.

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If that’s the case, what is the intrinsic value of studying the discipline of English? First, let us start with the nomenclature: having read Robert Eaglestone’s excellent Doing English recently, this is what he’s at pains to call it. Disciplines such as English are ‘like […] long conversation[s] over time’ (Eaglestone, 11); how the discipline is discussed has changed over time is like any discourse: certain voices and perspectives dominate at certain times, and what’s important within the discipline is constantly changing. I like Eaglestone’s ‘conversation’ metaphor, because I’ve found it a useful way of showing students why the subject is so worthy of their time. This is a vital part of motivation, because it helps fulfil one of the ’needs’ of Ryan and Deci’s ‘Self-Determination Theory’ (2000). In this theory, R&D discuss how and why individuals are motivated, and how conditions can be created to engender the same. The three needs are competence, autonomy and relatedness. It is this third need that’s being met with the usage of Eaglestone’s metaphor, because it allows students to understand:

a) that English is a subject that is interwoven with societal ideals, mores, customs, biases, etc.;

b) that the conversation that comprises the discipline of English is still going on, and that they have as much a right as any to participate;

c) that the English (literature) of the past can be examined in the here and now, and can be made relatable to one’s own context and one’s own experiences of the world. There are, as the critic John Berger titled his book, Different Ways of Seeing. Students often get frustrated because they just want the teacher to ’tell them the answer’, but the conversation metaphor begins to shift things: the ‘answer’ is something they’re a vital part of forming.

All this is to say that — fittingly — language is our first tool in shifting student perceptions of English away from it being a stepping stone to something with intrinsic value, which, I’d argue, is the only way one can be truly motivated to study it in any active way. We can take this further, too — once they realise that they are part of the conversation, not merely circumstantial eavesdroppers, we can then engage them further by getting them to think about heuristics: what are the best approaches to take when examining a given text?

What does this all look like in the classroom? Firstly, it’s an explicit effort to change one’s language. Speak of English as a conversation. Give students the means to be part of this conversation. How does one do this? The best way, I think, is via modelling. I’ve discussed this in my last post, so I won’t repeat too much detail here, but essentially the student needs to witness what happens in an expert’s head when the expert has the conversation with the text. Modelling goes beyond deconstructing a pre-written ‘WAGOLL’; instead, it must be at the heart of everything a teacher does. The teacher needs to make the following parts of their own thinking explicit:

  1. The questions they ask themselves when reading and writing, and why those are good questions to ask at those times;
  2. The language they use when discussing the texts and what the texts are doing;
  3. What knowledge to call upon when discussing a given part of the text, and why to call upon that type of knowledge at that point;
  4. The connections they make between texts, ideas, themes and contexts, and why those connections are worthy of being made;
  5. The mistakes, back-tracks, reformulations, revisions, doubts and corrections that are all part of the self-reflective literary critic’s experience of wrestling with the discipline.

Over time, this relatedness will help to meet the other needs: as students have the mental models of expertise modelled to them, they will become more competent. We’re motivated by what we feel we can achieve. We think we’re motivated when we’re inspired, but really inspiration is just a story we tell ourselves to justify why other people are successful and why we didn’t manage to do something: it’s because they were lucky to be inspired and we, through no fault of our own, weren’t. Instead, we’re actually motivated to do something when we think we’ll do it well: motivation in this set is a bet on the future self to have done well. So, the more competent students feel — which they should be, because they will be mimicking expert thinking with increasing confidence — the more motivated they’ll be to carry on the conversation, because they'll feel they’re finally speaking its language. This, in turn, sees them become more autonomous over time. They will be able to ask their own questions and select the tools for thought that are best for the critical task at hand, because they will have witnessed it happening.

You might have noticed that I wrote of students as literary critics. I’ve seen Andy (@__codexterous on Twitter; see his blog here) discuss this, and his blog contains excellent resources to encourage students to read and write like literary critics. I want my students to call themselves literary critics, because this puts them on a par with the others who have — and still have — conversations with the discipline of English. English is not some holy artefact; it is a vulgar thing (and I mean vulgar mostly in its Latin sense!) that anyone can get their hands on.

I’m still working on the ins and outs of this in the classroom, and I’m going to keep trying to get students to think of English as having tremendous intrinsic value. I’ll close by outlining a reading strategy I’ve been using with Year 8 as we’ve been reading Animal Farm. I believe that the gravamen of the below can be applied to most texts with a bit of tweaking. It has a few influences that are worth mentioning. First, it takes some cues from Progressive Summarisation, a reading note-taking technique that sees one gradually reduce a text down to the most critical points. P.S. is something I’ve started doing a version of in my own reading, and I can see myself writing about how I use it in my own knowledge management system at a later date. Second, I see the below as sharing a relationship with the ideas in my post States of Matter Matter, in which I use the three states of matter as tools for thought in the English classroom. Thirdly, and related to the first two, I’ve been influenced by the Zettelkasten method of interrelated note-taking and management.

Active critical reading

  1. Before reading, make sure students know that we’re reading this text to see how its ideas can be related to our own lives and times — we make the assumption that there are conversations that are going to be worth having with the text: we just have to find what they are and figure out what we want to say.
  2. As we read (I tend to read, but do what you like), I will pause. At these pause points, students need to scan over what they’ve just read. They must note down something that resonated with them, in the following format:
  3. Page number
  4. (Very short) quotation
  5. Fleeting thoughts or trigger words. The idea here is that they capture what was on their mind when the resonation ocurred. They want just enough to jog their memories when they revisit these fleeting notes. I don’t give them very long at all to make these notes, especially once we’re into the swing of things.
  6. Once we’re done reading, students read back through their fleeting notes and highlight anything that really resonates with them. I encourage them to be very selective; we might make a few passes if there are a lot of notes.
  7. Students are now left with textual references and ideas that were truly resonant. They examine each of these in turn, discussing and noting exactly why these aspects resonated. Here, I might give them prompts, e.g.:
  8. Did this resonate because of a particular aspect of the language? (Depending on the text, I might split this even further. For example, with poetry, I might ask the sub-question Did this resonate with you because of a particular sound or image?)
  9. Did this resonate because it links interestingly to some contextual information?
  10. Did this resonate because it seems thematically significant?
  11. They have as long as we need to discuss and flesh out their ideas. Discussion is really important; as I mentioned above, I like to follow Gas, Liquid, Solid, whereby gas = discussion, liquid = condensation of those discussions as notes, and solid = refinement and ordering of the same. This helps to keep discussions focussed, but also prevents loss of ideas into the ether.
  12. The final stage is connection. They find as many links as they can between the fleshed out ideas. We have more discussion as necessary. I might get them to write ideas on bits of paper or post-its and move them around. They might see if their bits of paper work well with those of others. It’s very Zettelkasten — they need to link their thinking. This is them having a conversation with the discipline. They’re always asking themselves, ‘What can I learn from making these connections?’

After this, they’re ready to write. They have all the ingredients for an essay. Their conversation with the text has been through many iterations. Nobody has just ‘accepted’ things; instead, they have critically appraised the text.

Students are more than future employees. To converse with English is to converse with humanity, in its ugliness and beauty. It would take a misanthrope of some calibre to find that meaningless.

Have a conversation with me on Twitter about this, if you like: @curtaindsleep.

Thank you for reading,

Alex