Innovation In Language Teaching #2: Motivation And 21st Century Learners

Hayo Reinders

In the second post in his series on innovation in language teaching, Professor Hayo Reinders asks how new types of language learning materials can actually live up to the hype that surrounds them.

Teachers are given a seemingly endless range of choices when it comes to the materials available to them, new technologies, and supposedly superior teaching methods. Many of these are regularly replaced over time by newer and “better” alternatives. It is not always clear, however, in what ways these alternatives are different, and even if they are, whether they are used differently in the classroom. In the early days of CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning), for example, a lot of the materials available on the computer were simply electronic versions of activities from books, and teachers used them as such.

In the next two posts, I will look at some common claims that accompany many new materials, and give some examples of materials that actually put these into practice. As will be clear, the examples are not necessarily “new” in the sense that they offer something that did not exist before, but rather that they do so in a way that takes account of the pedagogic process, and, as such, has an impact beyond the materials themselves.

This book/ technology/teaching method is motivating to learners.

Motivation is a complex and multifaceted concept (Dőrnyei 2012). What is motivating for one person may not be so for the next. In some ways, it may be more fruitful to speak of attempts to “engage” learners.

Engagement is related to interest and attraction. Making assumptions about what materials or instruction will make students want to learn (motivate them) is hard. Identifying topics and themes that engage learners, especially if the target audience is well defined, is somewhat easier.

Of course, engaging learners is not simply about choosing the right subject. Many ELT materials include seemingly relevant topics, but then fail to engage learners through the activities that make learners interact with the topic. Engaging materials draw in the learners in several ways.

To illustrate this, below is a video taken from Cambridge Discovery Education Interactive Readers. The video is about “heroes in everyday life,” in this case, firefighters. The topic itself is interesting, and the quality of the video is very high, with impressive footage of fires and the lives of the people fascinated by them. What pulls in the learners is that after they watch the video, they are asked to consider what it would be like to do this kind of work. In other words, learners do not simply watch a video, but are asked to learn from it and apply this knowledge to their own situations, which is more likely to engage them.

(A1) Saved! Heroes in Everyday Life – Firefighters from Cambridge University Press on Vimeo.

This book/technology/teaching method appeals to 21st-century learners.

Related to the point above, innovative materials go beyond supposedly novel topics and change the ways learners interact with them. Young learners these days have been shown to have strong preferences for learning in certain ways (Johnson 2005). They prefer active interaction with resources over passive exposure. Learners as “prosumers” (producer-consumers) enjoy creating their own content or remixing existing content to create something new, and enjoy hands-on, experiential forms of learning.

Hayo will be back next week, exploring how innovations can live up to their promises on autonomy and multimedia.

Dőrnyei, Z. 2001. Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, UK: Pearson.
Johnson, S. 2005. Everything bad is good for you: How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.

To find out more, ensure to read the third post in Professor Hayo’s series – he will be discussing the sorts of questions that teachers should ask!

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