Is there a dark side in motivation?

Is there a dark side in motivation?

Motivating people is a multifaceted concept. It is not simply a topic to research or talk about, but an ever-asked question that may not yet have received a definite answer.

My “guru” regarding motivation in language learning is Zoltan Dörnyei, and I think that the moment he defined, along with Jill Hadfield, the concept of the Ideal Future Language Self was a pivotal one in the literature of motivation for learning.

The theory urged teachers to help students create a successful vision of themselves as competent English users. Following this vision, the theory assumed students would work harder to achieve this image. It is a sophisticated, scientifically justified, and well-communicated theory, followed by many recommended activities that could work in any classroom. However, it is challenging to know how many times and by how many teachers any of these activities were tested and how many of them yielded some motivation.

To be fair and just, the problem might not be that some theories do not work.

We all need to research, stumble and fall, and try if we want to achieve something better for our students. The mantra one size does not fit all indicates how long, complicated, and sometimes steep the path to motivating students is. If we knew how to find the motivation recipe, we would have all got that book, paper, or resource that could give it to us. After all, nothing in education can be achieved with magic wands, and professional educators know this well.

However, while we are all considering and searching for plug-and-play motivational remedies, we fail to realise there might be a stage before trying these methods. A framework or context in which we become inert or passive. Several actions may not necessarily yield demotivation but may obstruct us as teachers from generating motivation for our students. It is maybe the moment when we are crossing into, what I call, the “Dark Side of Motivation” without even realising it.

It may be an incident with a student that we may take light-heartedly as a non-significant one, but this may have caused negative feelings in our student and a reluctance to be motivated. It might be one phrase or a particular look that can crash our students' prospect of motivation, and it can happen just like that within a fraction of a second.

Let’s identify some of these motivation killers and create awareness around them.

Motivation is not only about rewards

Grades are important for assessment. They help teachers evaluate students and provide a measuring reference for setting goals.

They also help communication with parents, but they can also be tricky or dubious regarding students' motivation. They can be like a double-edged sword; on the one hand, nudging and pushing students to pursue higher performance or even prepare for better results, but on the other hand, what if they won't? 

Alfie Kohn, in a rather revolutionary way, points out that the educational systems have become really obsessed, trying to invent grading and reward systems instead of really trying to engage students or cultivate their curiosity.

Nobody will ever question the existence of grading or evaluation systems, and most probably, they will continue existing for many years to come. But when there is even a tiny suspicion that assessment may overshadow learning, then I think all the educators need to reframe how important they think grades might be.

Alfie Kohn also points out that:

  • Grades undermine students' interest in learning.
  • Tests lead students to try to avoid challenging tasks. If they have an opportunity, they will pick the shortest book or the most familiar topic, not because they are lazy but because the system has made them respond rationally to an irrational demand. If the purpose is to get an A, then it is more than obvious that students will try to find the easiest way to do that.
  • Students start thinking in a shallow, superficial way about their studying. Their way of studying or the items to study are usually affected by phrases like: "Do we have to know this? Will this be on the test?"

So, as teachers, we should never forget that the fact that we have a grading system, the fact that we have students who achieve high grades, is not always a prerequisite for motivation, and sometimes it can even impede the natural, spontaneous, voluntary impulse for learning that we all have innately as humans.

No teacher should think of grades bnly as a source of motivation but also as a source that may not work towards this conducive goal. Grades can help students study more and perform better, but they may also cause a lot of stress, rejection, reluctance to continue studies, and above all, make the pursuit of grades the main goal of education, instead of learning.

The Curse of Knowledge

We all enjoy speaking with eloquence, establishing a strong connection with our students, and sometimes, without realising it, showcasing our knowledge and expertise by incorporating complex ideas and references into our lectures.

In other words, we want to demonstrate that we know what we're talking about. However, this behaviour falls under the Curse of Knowledge, which means that we may be so absorbed in our knowledge that we overlook whether our students are learning or not.

We may recall a teacher from our past who frequently did this, or perhaps we have fallen prey to this behaviour. But just because we know the material, can present it efficiently, and deliver a compelling lecture, it doesn't guarantee our students will understand it. Our demonstration of expertise may cast a message of dark motivation in the classroom.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, Elizabeth Newton, illustrated the Curse of Knowledge by conducting a simple game in which she assigned people to two roles: tapper or listener.

The tapper had to pick a well-known song and tap out the rhythm on a table while the listener guessed the song. Listeners correctly guessed only three of the 120 songs: a success ratio of 2.5%. Before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly, and they predicted 50%. The tappers believed they had successfully conveyed their message, but in reality, they only succeeded once in 40 attempts.

As educators, managers, coaches, or presenters, we may mistakenly assume that our message has reached its intended audience once we've explained something efficiently. 

However, imagine how discouraging it would be for a student who hasn't understood your lecture. They might be intimidated to ask questions or seek further clarifications because of the fascinating performance of your expertise. What if, for various reasons, you believed that they understood, but nobody did? 

That is why it is crucial to:

  • ask for feedback, 
  • break up your lectures into smaller segments, and
  • ensure that everyone in the room understands what you're saying.

School classrooms differ from university lecture halls, and students may need to hear a concept multiple times or in different examples, regardless of how well we know it. We may possess exceptional knowledge and performance, but that doesn't guarantee that our students will understand our lectures immediately. We must adopt a more humble approach and acknowledge that, there might be cases, during which we may not create a conducive environment for learning.

The Sisyphic Condition

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by the Gods with an eternal task for his sins. He had to repeatedly push a rock up a hill, only for it to roll back down each time he reached the top. Sisyphus was condemned to perform this futile and exhausting task for all eternity.

When we first encounter the story of Sisyphus, we might think that the actual act of torture is the strenuous effort that he has to put in to complete this painful task. We might assume that Sisyphus is punished because he cannot rest, and he has to keep performing this arduous task.

However, Dan Ariely, in his book Pay Off: The Hidden Logic that Pays Our Motivation, offers another perspective on the interpretation of the Sisyphus torture.

Ariely argues that it is not just the effort, labor, and exhaustion that Sisyphus has to endure to perform the task, but there is another element of torture in the cyclical repetition of the task. It appears that Sisyphus performs the task again and again without any goal or meaning. In other words, Sisyphus works hard and gives his best, but his effort yields neither results nor progress, and therefore, it has no meaning.

Now, let us imagine a classroom where the teacher is performing at their best (like in the Curse of Knowledge condition). The teacher has covered all the required materials, the classroom is disciplined, and everyone appears happy. It seems that the task has been accomplished, and all the boxes have been ticked. One could easily claim that this teacher has done an excellent job.

However, using Ariely's perspective, it might be challenging to find meaning in all the performance, energy, and effort that the teacher described in the previous paragraph. It is true that the educator has done their job, but is this effort enough to give some meaning to the lesson itself for the students? Has the teacher ever wondered if performing the task is sufficient to ensure that their lesson procures learning?

Finally, the Sisysphic Condition can stand as another example of an everyday situation in that motivation cannot be procured or generated. 

Social Pain Equals Physical Pain

Have we ever wondered where the common expression "my heart is broken" comes from? Is the meaning of this phrase purely metaphorical, or could it be that it includes a literal meaning?

Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman managed to prove that this phrase was not formed accidentally and that it has a literal meaning. After many years of research, they proved that the painful effects of social and psychological rejection are more than just a metaphor. In other words, when we feel socially or emotionally rejected or hurt, the pain we feel is identical to the pain we feel when we break our leg or hand. The two neuroscientists proved that in the case of social pain, the exact same regions of our brains are activated when we experience physical pain.

We can all realize the amount of awesome responsibility that these findings create for any educator in a classroom context. Teachers need to be aware that one single word, one phrase, a derogatory tone of voice, or even a bad mood may create similar negative feelings in their students. The cases during a lesson in a school classroom in which a similar trigger may occur  are numerous. We, as teachers, sometimes fail to realize the effect that our words may have on our students, even subconsciously. Kindness, respect, rules of good conduct, and mindfulness can be a safety net for educators to avoid causing social pain.

Needless to say, if a teacher falls into the trap of social pain, it will be very difficult for them to create any framework of motivation or try to spark similar conducive feelings. It is not that frameworks of demotivation will be automatically generated, but that motivational attitudes will find it hard to be cultivated, which is a situation that definitely none of us wants in our classes.


This article was first published in TESOL GREECE Journal/Issue 158/ISSN 2653-887 under the title HOW ELT TEACHERS CAN AVOID CROSSING INTO THE DARK SIDE OF  MOTIVATION: Four Pitfalls which may Prevent ELT Teachers from Generating Motivation in the Classroom



Written by George Kokolas
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