Motivation and identity

Rachelle: Hi Kay! It’s been a while – as some of our readers may or may not know, I was away for most of the summer; however, I did really enjoy reading the interview you did with Damon and Damien about their website,

So a few months back we talked about our summer reading wish list, and I was able to read one of the books on my list, Drive, by Daniel H. Pink. How successful were you with your reading?

Kay: Hi Rachelle! Well, I was just as successful(!) as you were! I ended up spending the first half of August at work drafting documents for Monkasho to get approval for a new faculty at my university and the second half on preparing for and then traveling to England for a conference at the University of Nottingham. A great trip and a great conference but it didn’t give me much spare time to do anything else. So I managed to read only one book, Diane Nagatomo’s Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’ Professional Identity.

But let’s start with your reading first. I read Drive a while ago as it was mentioned by L2 motivation researchers including Ema Ushioda and Tim Murphey. I remember that it was refreshing to read something on motivation that is written for the general public in a non-academic style. Did you enjoy the book?

Rachelle: Yes, very much so. As you’ve mentioned, it was a nice change to read something that’s meant for the general public, and not just academics. Drive has been on my reading list for quite some time, so I was glad to finally be able to read it this summer. Pink writes about motivation in general, and I was particularly interested in how research has shown that our assumptions about what motivates people to do things are often quite wrong. Traditionally, a carrot-and-stick approach has been used, under the assumption that people will only do things if they can be rewarded for it, be it with money or food or whatever. However, Pink shows that really only has a short-term benefit in most cases, and that often people will do better without any kind of reward, other than the pleasure they get from doing and/or completing the task successfully.

It really made me consider my teaching practice and research projects, since they primarily involve motivation and autonomy. Rewards such as handing out extra credit for extra work seem to fall under the traditional “Motivation 2.0,” as Pink calls it, and while it works with some students in the short term, I doubt it has any lasting impact in the long term (and Pink’s analysis of the research supports that assumption). Of course, it is important to consider the differences in situation and culture; a Japanese university classroom is different from an American business. That being said, it’s really made me consider not only what I do in the classroom to promote autonomous learning, but whether I am doing more harm than good by doing so.

Kay: That is a tricky point isn’t it? I’ve wondered about that too. I really think that using such incentives as extra points toward their grade depends on the type of class or context. When you are teaching compulsory classes with students who are mostly not interested in or serious about improving their abilities in English, I don’t think using carrots is necessarily harmful. Of course, you can expect some students to stop making an effort after the course is over. What the students did in your class may not lead to autonomy outside the classroom, but it wasn’t going to for these students anyway. I’d like to think that it might help some students to find an interest or enjoyment in something they wouldn’t have found (discovered) on their own. But of course, it would be a whole different story for those who are already motivated and have purposes for learning English. For them, we should focus our attention on how we can make the course challenging, rewarding and satisfying, right? And most of the students and classes are somewhere in between these two, so I think we need to adjust according to their motivational needs.

What do you think?

Rachelle: You raise some good issues, Kay. Trying to promote autonomy and motivation for Japanese students in compulsory classes is indeed a different type of situation than those listed in Pink’s book; however, I wonder if some of the ideas presented there would actually work if they were adapted for the classroom. For example, he talks about “20% time” where workers in a company can spend 20% of their time focused on a personal project that has nothing to do with their current work (Gmail, for example, is the result of one such project). Of course, working in a creative field is a bit different from studying a language, but I like the idea of it. It actually comes close to my very first research project that had students come up with a personal autonomous study project for their language learning. We spent some time looking at various options, such as studying English from movies, or doing TOEIC practice, and students chose projects that they were most interested in. It worked well for the few motivated students I had, but not so much for all the others. I’d like to find a way to rework it in a more appealing model so that it benefits more students. It’s definitely something I’m going to contemplate more over the coming months, so that I can perhaps implement it in the new school year. Another important idea Pink brings up is ROWE – a results-only work environment. Naturally, the business model he describes, where people make their own schedules wouldn’t work in a school environment, but perhaps it could be adapted within a class. We did talk earlier in the year about alternative forms of assessment, and I think that a ROWE might be a way to look at class time and assessment in a different light.

So tell me about Diane Nagatomo’s Exploring Japanese University English Teachers’ Professional Identity. What was your impression of the book?

Kay: As the book is a collection of Nagatomo’s studies on teacher identity, it is quite academic in its style and structure. But the content was so immediate and real for me as a female full-time university English teacher in Japan. It was fascinating to read such detailed narrative accounts and analysis of the development of teacher identity applying the sociocultural frameworks.

Although identity is closely related to L2 motivation, my primary research interest, I always feel I don’t spend enough time reading about it. My hesitation to dive into it may come from my research background in social and cognitive psychological rather than sociocultural or poststructuralist approaches. But now many motivation researchers are interested in the concept of self which is very close to identity, and I am more encouraged to read and think about identity. I also had the opportunity earlier this year to read a dissertation on pre-service teachers’ identity formation, which made me want to read this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed all parts of the book from the rich description of the Japanese context to the analysis of the individuals’ critical incidents in their educational and professional histories. But the part that stimulated me the most was the discussion of Discourse-identity which is entwined with two other perspectives, Nature-identity and Institutional-identity of female English teachers in Japanese university (Chapter 6). It made me think about how we consciously and unconsciously regulate our actions based on how we want to present ourselves to our students and colleagues, and also to meet the expectations of others. These expectations are something we sense by interacting with others over time. They are often implicit and never discussed openly. So they are ultimately our perception. Yet, when we read the accounts of others that remind us of our own actions, we renew our awareness of similar expectations we have ourselves. For example, a discussion of how one of the female professors tends to avoid disclosing her occupation to strangers as it would change the tone of the conversation and communication style. I do this quite often, especially when I am around women of my age or mothers at my daughters’ school. They particularly react to the expression of kyoju (= 教授/professor). So I usually say I work fulltime so I’m not home during the day. But when they ask me a further question about it, I end up saying exactly the same thing the participant says in the excerpt: chotto eigo o oshietemasu [ちょっと英語を教えています/I teach English…somewhat]. I always thought I did that to present myself as one of the mothers to secure my position in the community but I had never really thought about it deeply enough to notice that it is also regulated indirectly by the unequal representation of women in workforce in Japan and the roles of women expected in society.

Rachelle: That sounds really interesting. And, I must say, somewhat topical given all of the recent, and not-so-recent, news concerning women in the workplace here in Japan. Even for myself, I never used to think about gender at all in terms of my professional work or identity, until it was revealed to me that I had been hired partly because I was female and they wanted to address the gender balance at the university. That was many years ago, and I was quite offended for some time about that (despite being thrilled about the job), but over the years I’ve discovered that this is a recurring issue for many women in the university workplace.

I don’t know if this is mentioned in the book or not (it’s definitely on my to-read list as of now), but I also wonder if Nagatomo delves into the issue of mentorship as part of one’s professional identity. I used to think about this in a general sense in my previous teaching jobs, but now that I am at a university where the majority of students are female, it has become a much bigger issue for me. We are currently in a situation where the government is trying to encourage more women in the workplace without addressing the issue of the difficulties they face working in a male-dominated environment with goals and ideals not necessarily suited to working women, especially those with young children. Yet, on the other side of things, I see many of my young female students believing that their only goal in life is to get a job (elementary school teacher, flight attendant, etc.) for about eight years (max), after which they’ll quit and be stay-at-home moms. When I ask them about their “plan Bs” – in the event they can’t get the job of their dreams, or have children, or a husband who can provide for them, I just get blank or confused faces. So as a result I feel a little more pressure on myself, not only to encourage them to think outside the box, but to be what I hope is a positive role model of a working professional.

Kay: It is not framed as mentorship but the issue of role model is discussed as part of Discourse-Identity as well as Institution-Identity for some participants. She describes the participants who see themselves in relation to their students as successful L2 learners and also successful career women. And I also relate to that. To my students, I often present myself as a learner rather than teacher, as I’m afraid they might see me as someone who acquired English overseas (without much effort) and also someone with a career and a family.

The book certainly made me reflect on how I have developed and am changing my teacher identity. It is interesting that some of the graduate students taking my Language Learning Psychology class chose to work on teacher identity for their term papers. I don’t recall talking about the book in class as the course is focused on learner psychology. Perhaps they felt my enthusiasm for the topic.

Well, Rachelle, this is our final “Talking Points” together. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you about various topics this year. We covered a lot of different areas ranging from our research to the issue of evaluation, web resources and books! I have never done a blog and this turned out to be an opportunity for me to confirm the value of dialogue in deepening thinking and understanding. How was it for you?

Rachelle: I have to say Kay, that it’s been a really rewarding experience for me. I’ve really enjoyed our discussions over the past year and have come away with some new insights about how to approach my teaching (and learning!) practice. This hasn’t been my first blog, but it’s certainly been the first one that I’ve kept up with regularly, and I hope to do the same with my own personal and professional blogs now that we are finished here. Thanks for the great run!

Kay: Thank you to you too, Rachelle. And we would like to thank the readers and everyone who helped us throughout the year including Alison Stewart and Andy Barfield, who always read our writing, and Hugh Nicoll for sharing this on the LD SIG website.

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