Why should we be motivated to learn?

If you think about doing something you have not done before, why should you do it? The “what is in it for me” question always comes up.

Do you think these two “I”s are important?

  • Interest
  • Involvement

This personal article is written from experience, reading motivational experts’ material and some individual analytical thinking in an attempt to connect some dots. The article tries to relate this general question about learning to learning English as a foreign language at all levels for all age groups.

All classrooms, virtual or physical, regardless of size and number of attendees have a teacher and at least one student.

The teacher transmits information to the student that the student does not know. There are two fundamental parts to the initial transmission. Firstly, the teacher must have a competent technical knowledge of English. Secondly, the teacher must enable learning in the student. If the teacher is technically incompetent and fails to enable learning, no learning will take place.

This article concentrates on the second part, enabling learning, because without it, regardless of the teacher’s technical knowledge of English, learning may not take place.

Motivation experts indicate that various mental and physical states must be in place before learning can be considered. Things such as warmth, physical comfort, being properly fed, emotionally balanced, no stress caused by external situations, etc. This article assumes that all these factors are in place.


Learning at all skill levels and ages, according to many motivational experts such as Maslow, Herzberg, Ausubel, et. al. concentrate on “me” as the driving factor.

“Me” is what makes you tick. It is what drives the way you live and the way you think. There is a saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” This applies to all of us. You can put a student in a classroom, but you cannot make him/her learn. As teachers, we often forget this and assume that everyone in the class is there because they want to learn. We wonder why some students do much better than others. We blame it on mental capacity, bad attitude, defective parenting, economic/cultural differences, etc.

There are several Hollywood movies based on true teaching stories. The majority are about a 180 degree change in a class of children that from a societal point of view, were hopeless and a lost cause. The reason these “losers” became a success story was because their teacher understood “me”, “interest” and “involvement”. The teacher enabled learning. A good example would be “Stand and deliver” starring Edward James Olmos.

What many of us fail to realise is “me”. You have a class full of “me”. Transpose “me” to “you”. Metaphorically speaking, swap shoes with your students.

A simple diagram of “me” and why “me” does things

Why should we be motivated to learn? The two “I”s for teaching.

Why should we be motivated to learn? The two “I”s for teaching.

The green triangular structure shows “me” and why “me” does things. Everyone does things because they have an interest and are involved. For the moment, it does not matter what causes these two “I”s because without them, you will not do whatever it is that is asked of you.

If you have no interest and/or no involvement with something, will you do it?

The hard part for English teachers

All teachers have students. All students are individuals. All students are “me”. The teacher has to stimulate and maintain interest and involvement in many “me”s.


If you are interested in something you, will be involved and vice versa.

Presenting a challenge. Some people like a challenge, others do not. The ones who do not probably feel that way because they have failed challenges in the past. Laziness should not be excluded. However, what appears to be laziness could be a manifestation of previously failed challenge attempts.

Needs may be driven by personal requirements or mandatory requirements. The latter is a weaker need because, as for example with school children, they are obligated by law to attend school while they remain within a certain age group. At its most extreme, “need” can be a survival need. The need to do something is not necessarily the result of something positive. However, need caused by a negative influence will not be as effective because the need is imposed against the learner’s wishes.

Curiosity is a strong, personal emotion. The wish to find out more about something is possibly the strongest motivator of all. If you can engender curiosity in your students, their learning will improve. They will also challenge you more with questions and explanations.

Achievability must be ever-present. If you see that you cannot do something and you think that you will never acquire the new skill, you will eventually stop trying to learn it. Everything that is taught must be achievable. If not, it is a waste of time. Achievability is also relative so when you ask for something to be done, make sure your students are capable of doing it. Just because something worked with one class does not mean it will work in another.


If you are involved with something you, will be interested and vice versa.

Participation in a learning environment is critical. If students do not participate, they will lose interest. Passive learning is never as efficient as active learning so make sure all your students participate as much as possible in the classroom. As long as you manage participation properly, it should work and bear fruit.

Enjoyment cannot always be present, but the learning experience must be made as enjoyable as possible. This is critical for young learners. Their world is based around play, activity and visual stimulation. If small children find the classroom unenjoyable they will very quickly look for other things to do. Teenager and adult reactions will be different. Teenagers are large children so watch out for their reactions. Most adults will probably avoid the situation by dropping out of class.

The relevance of what is being learned is another very important factor. The STEM model has shown this by making science, technology, engineering and mathematics more accessible. Pi may well be 22/7 but who cares, why is this useful, what is its relevance? The same has to happen in your English classroom. Who cares about the present perfect? Show me why I need to use it, when I should use it, give me some stimulating material to work with and interesting participative activities. Your students’ age group will determine how you address relevance.

Results are vital. Anyone who learns wants to feel a sense of progression and achievement. If you do not improve, why on earth should you keep going? Children like praise and gold stars. Older students like to see grades. Everyone likes to see for themselves that they can read, write, speak, listen and, most importantly, communicate and understand better than before.

Innovation, the third “I”

As an English teacher, you have to be innovative. You also have to learn.

If you teach at an individual or small group level, your ability to judge the “me” factors for each of your students should be easy.

If you teach large classes in K-18 schools, your ability to judge “me” factors at an individual level will be difficult. You will need to make a generalised judgement based on the age group and the average skill level of your students.

Regardless of either of these cases, you should never forget the “me” factor and the ways you can encourage and stimulate your students to learn.

You control, manage, design and deliver your classes. Make sure that when you do, you address the “me”, “interest” and “involved” triangle.

IMPORTANT: There are many different cultures and perspectives on life, so when you innovate, you must do it within the norms of where you are. You cannot blindly transpose your own cultural and societal values because they may not be understood or, even worse, may be construed as offensive.

If you succeed, you may well see not only a change in progress, but also a change in attitude. Students who previously where afraid of a challenge, failed to see the need, lacked curiosity or felt doomed to failure; may well make the turn and become better learners.

STEM has shown this to be the case so it is achievable.

There is no magic formula for making any of this “me” influencing happen. Many experts have many ideas.

This article scratches the surface so all input, ideas, experiences, advice, etc. are more than welcome.

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