Learning No. 2: Motivation & Meaning & Vice Versa

The following is a little story of why the power of meaningful motivation is one of my top 5 learnings for 2010:

Scaffolding posterThe book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl came to me in three curious ways. Listening to a podcast on a trip home to Canada, I heard the speakers discussing Frankl’s work on the topic of living a meaningful life. As a teacher trainer, a language instructor, and an enthusiast of purposeful human connections, I often consider how meaning functions in our lives.

Then during one of my cherished trips to the used clothing and bookstore, Guy’s Frenchys, the bright blue title Man’s Search for Meaning popped up from the wooden bin of books for a loonie. Snatching it up from between the forgotten detective and romance novels, Frankl’s book followed me to South Korea where it lay on my shelf until three days ago.

During my daily walk on the mountain path behind my house, I listened to Daniel Pink‘s audio book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which my good friend Hailey Tallman, an art therapist in the making, had recommended years ago. In addition to explaining how right-brain features such as inventiveness and empathy will direct the future, he also writes about how meaning is developing a greater presence in the lives of people today. It is at this stage of the audio book that he mentioned Viktor Frankl. Frankl had found me once again, and this is when I realized that this book, waiting for me on my shelf, connected to my experiences as a teacher.

It isn’t Frankl’s theory that makes an impression on me, but rather the power behind the creation of his theory. Created during his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz, the intensity of his message becomes even stronger:

…man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.

Then, how does meaning connect to motivation?

When I look back on 2010, motivation is a constant theme. In the majority of participants, I could sense a desire to learn, and to do their best.  I noticed that they listened attentively, and did their activities with attention and curiosity. When they weren’t sure how to accomplish a task, they asked clarifying questions. They worked closely with their partners in order to attain successful results.  They showed a willingness to go to places within themselves they had never explored. They described these in-depth personal accounts in their dialogue journals and self-reflective essays.

I hypothesize that they went to the boundaries of discomfort because they felt the activities, and the knowledge they would gain from these tasks, were meaningful to them on some level. They trusted that what I was offering during my lessons connected to their lives. For this reason they were willing to try, even when it meant risking losing face.

I see my first year as a teacher trainer as a vicious cycle of meaning and motivation. Because the trainees were motivated to learn, I was motivated to teach. Since they felt the learning was meaningful, I felt that my teaching was meaningful. The adverb ”vice versa” must be added to both these sentences, since they too were energized by my motivation and by the positive meaning I placed on my craft.

I can’t say I had the participants’ full attention all of the time. I also can’t say for sure that a deep sense of meaning and motivation led them all. Some may be motivated by the need to save face; some may be motivated by an increase in salary completion of our course may offer.

I do know for sure that some participants did not display signs of motivation. Complaints about assignments, or the fact that they did not participate in activities are reminders that motivation is precious, but never a sure thing, even when you are teaching teachers. Who would have known that teachers who pray for student participation have difficulty participating themselves? But that’s a story for another entry.

There is definite power in student motivation. When we have a class full of eager learners, it is a teacher’s dream. Nothing beats this feeling. But as mentioned above, motivation is not a one-sided deal. Popular educators talk about how teachers need to create environments of intrinsic motivation (see author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, ESOL teacher and teacher trainer Jeremy Harmer and author of books on the world of work Daniel Pink).

Of course fostering intrinsic motivation can be one of the biggest challenges for teachers. It may take some creative thinking, but the ability to create this environment exists. I believe the secret lies in meaning, and the beauty of language teaching is that language exists in order to transmit meaning. We can ask ourselves, what brings meaning to our students’ lives? What is important to them? From these questions, teachers can start creating a path to their students’ hearts and minds.

I am grateful for the meaning and motivation that followed me in 2010, and they are concepts I will be eagerly watching in my teaching years to come. Whenever I forget how they play a part in my teaching, I can remember this quote by Frankl:

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’

Considering the ‘how’ that Frankl lived with, the ‘how’ of meaningful lesson planning seems inspirational and simple.


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