French, Motivation, and Me

eiffeltowerThey say that medical students spend much of their early training examining themselves for symptoms of every disease they study, no matter how obscure. The more they think about something, the more they find evidence of it in their lives. I’m finding something similar (although less frightening) happening to me this semester as I’ve taken over teaching a course on motivation from a recently-retired friend. I find myself thinking about my daily activities in terms of motivation. Why am I doing this thing? Do I want to? Why? If not, why am I doing it?

It has been easy to see evidence of various types of motivation in my daily activities. Some things clearly are driven by extrinsic rewards/threats. I go out on cold snowy days and shovel the sidewalk because otherwise the city will ticket us. On those same blustery days I drive to campus for office hours when I know no one is coming because it required by our contract and I like my paycheck. Extrinsic, for sure.

There are things I do for the intrinsic joy of it—playing with the cats, making mosaics, playing music, writing stories, taking a Zingerman’s baking class. True to the theory, most of my creative activities fit here—at least most of the time. While there are specific steps in each activity that may not be particularly joyful-say, picking out stray bits of grout or proofreading—the activities overall are things I enjoy exploring, opening the way for creative options.

But some things don’t fit either category cleanly. I pursue these activities because they lead me toward a goal I value. The efforts themselves may not feel important or even interesting, but because I value the goal, I persevere. Wentzel and Brophy (2014) describe such motivation, at least in school circumstances, as “motivation to learn.” Sometimes learning is like that. We work to learn X in order to one day do Y.  Clearly, good teaching—to say nothing of teaching for creativity–requires figuring out how to build and support motivation to learn. We can’t be creative in a domain unless we know something about it. And to be blunt, no one can make a student learn. Not really. Students work on learning because they value it. Or they don’t invest in the process.

So how to we support that? First, I suspect, by recognizing that “Y,” the goal for which students are reaching, is unlikely to be the standardized test districts value so highly. Students might persist in vocabulary-building exercises because they want to write a really scary story. They might be motivated to analyze challenging text if it will help them repair their used car or write an outraged op-ed. I recently spoke to an enthusiastic adolescent who was anxious to learn matrix algebra because he had realized that without understanding it, his long-envisioned science project might explode. (I guess that’s one kind of motivation!)

My motivation to learn is less danger-ridden. Most recently, I’ve experienced motivation to learn in my efforts to recapture my high school French. I’ve been exploring various apps and learning systems, with differing degrees of success and motivation. I definitely have a goal I value. I’d very much like to travel in France with enough fluency to be able to get a bit off the beaten path, so I’m perfectly willing to plug away at less-than-exhilarating vocabulary and grammar exercises. But why are some so much more motivating than others? I’d like to explore that question in a few more posts. What are the things that keep me moving, aiming for the day I’ll be able to express myself creatively in more than one language?

Que pensez-vous? On verra!




Wentzel, K. R. & Brophy, J. E. (2014). Motivating students to learn. 4th Ed. New York: Routledge.

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