Language practices in classroom can help motivate students, says Institute scholar

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For years, if students didn’t do well in school, they were often considered ‘unmotivated.’ But thanks to Dr. Bonny Norton, that notion is changing, putting less emphasis on individual students and more onus on the learning environment.

South African-born Dr. Norton, a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall Institute, conceptualized what has become a breakthrough in the field of language teaching as she began to challenge the notion of students being differentiated by their motivation— or lack thereof.

“I realized theories of motivation were very limited,” says Dr. Norton, Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education in the Faculty of Education at UBC and a recipient of both a Killam Research Prize and a Killam Teaching Prize. “If you don’t do well in class, you’re often considered to be unmotivated, but what I’ve found in my research is it’s a lot more complicated than that. A student may wish to speak, but who is listening?”

Dr. Norton developed the concept of investment, an idea that has been widely successful in the world of language education. What she means by investment, she explains, is a sociological rather than psychological construct, and captures the relationship between commitment to learning and student identity. Identity, in turn, is not simply the essential personality of an individual, but is considered to be multiple and socially constructed.

For example, in addition to asking how motivated a student is, it is also important to ask what the student’s investment is in the language practices of a classroom or community. A motivated student who is subjected to a racist, sexist or homophobic class culture may not be invested in the language practices of the classroom, but nevertheless be perceived as ‘unmotivated’.

“There may also be a disjuncture between what the teacher considers good teaching, and what the student considers good teaching,” Dr. Norton says, noting that within this conceptual framework, learning is not just the responsibility of the learner.

“It’s a fundamental shift in the way we understand the learner and the learning context.”

According to Dr. Norton, the best classroom practices validate students’ identities as opposed to marginalizing them.

“If students laugh at another student’s accent, it can certainly marginalize the student,” she explains. “Or perhaps if the assessment of a student’s work only looks at his or her weaknesses, and not his or her strengths.” 

Dr. Norton says the best classroom culture will cultivate or even reconstruct students’ identities to make them feel as much a part of the fabric of the classroom as possible. 

“Say you have a shy student who doesn’t participate or talk, some teachers might say she’s not motivated. But say, for example, she’s a good violin player, a good practice would be to say, ‘let’s have a jam session and play some music.’ Suddenly her identity shifts from ‘shy student’ to ‘musician.’ Because of that, the relationship between the student and the classroom changes and she becomes a more integrated part of the community. Other students view her more positively and she speaks more freely.”        

“Other students are all part of the culture of the classroom,” she says. “Often the most important challenge is how a teacher can promote practices that validate student identity, so the student can then become invested in classroom practices.”