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Motivation or Investment?

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Should we measure student investment?

In TESOL research, there is study after study on student motivation. We all want the secret to helping our students unlock all of their potential. We know that people with high levels of motivation can overcome all kinds of learner challenges or situations. However, in the book “The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL, and bilingual education,” Norton considers the issue of investment. He argues that studies on motivation tend to be more quantitative, but that we should inquire into the more qualitative construct of investment. Norton argues investment is less of a static quality in students, so it may be a more enlightening element when researchers look at why students appear to be more or less motivated in certain classes or seasons. Norton argues that students may not be invested in the teachers’ language practices, or classes may not meet student expectations. Thus, why Norton argues that researching investment may open up new insights for teachers.

What guides investment?

Norton also addresses “imagined communities.” While this term has usually referred to studies of nationalism, students studying any language are joining a new community. Perhaps they are joining a physical community or an imagined community, or both. Students are invested in a certain element of English learning because of their imagined or real communities. Norton argues that an investment in a language takes on an “associated range of identities,” and students need to buy-in at every level of learning. Thus, arguing, “if there is little ownership over meaning making, learning becomes meaningless and ritualized” (p. 116).

Helping our students invest in their own success involves promoting autonomy and self-regulation strategies at every level. Students must have agency and language to communicate when the course is not reflecting their needs. While students may find it difficult to discuss what they need or lack, teachers must promote agency within their classrooms and programs. What good is a language program, if it does not give language to the needs of the students?

The author examines a case study of a language professional in an English school in Canada. A teacher told the student that their skills were not “good enough” to progress to the next class. This, in turn, led the student to drop out of the school because she did not feel respected. The student wanted to be respected as a language professional, but was restricted from that “imagined community”. This led to a withdrawal of investment. As language professionals, we sometimes need to fail students who are not ready to move up; however, we may want to rethink the way we break the news. Administrators and teachers should consider how to protect students’ investment throughout the course of their time at their school.

Where can I read this research?

Norton, B. (2014). Identity, literacy, and the multilingual classroom. In S. May (ed.), The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL, and bilingual education (pp. 103-122). New York, NY: Routledge.

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