Motivating learners by creating an audience

09 November 2018

A few years ago I was tasked with teaching at a prestigious all-girls school in Bangkok, Thailand. My students were secondary students with varied levels of English and varied levels of motivation for learning. I taught the class 3 times a week for a 50 minute period each time.

As a 45 year old male from the UK I had very little in common with my students but I was determined to make the class run successfully and engage the students as best I could. I prided myself on my teaching and having been employed in the role for over 20 years felt that this was a good challenge for me. After a needs analysis and generally getting to know the girls it became clear that the majority of the students shared a love of music and art. At times students would break out into song often the song ‘a thousand years’ by Christina Perri as they all loved the movie Twilight which was popular at the time. I would also occasionally have to remind students that they were in English class and not art class as they would get sidetracked and be doodling or finishing off artwork they had already started.   Now obviously our music tastes differed somewhat. Not many of them had heard of the Smiths or even Billy Bragg and to be honest I didn’t force any of this upon them but what I did do was find out what they liked. I gave out a piece of paper and asked every student to write a song they would like to hear in class. The only rule was it must be in English. Most of them liked K-pop bands which I am not a fan of so this ruled those bands out. What we had was lots of Taylor Swift, Adele, Bruno Mars and the aforementioned Christina Perri.  I used this list as a classroom management tool and said that if they were ‘good’ we would listen to the list in order throughout the lessons that term at appropriate stages of the lesson. We did this throughout the term and the girls were excited to hear their requests and appreciative that I took the time to consider their likes and bring this into the lesson.

Having used music throughout the term I now wanted to create something memorable that would blend the love of music and art shared by a large majority of the students. I spoke to a colleague and he suggested I try a doodle video. This was basically creating a video for a song using pictures drawn by the students. Initially I was skeptical as I believed this would a) take a lot of my time to organise and produce and b) not extend the students in terms of their English ability. However, after consideration and seeing examples of other doodle videos I decided to run this by my students. They were, as you would imagine, very enthusiastic by the project so we choose a song, ‘A Thousand Years’ of course and I went out about printing separate A4 sheets with one line of the  song on each sheet. Students were given individual sheets and tasked with drawing an image that reflected the lyrics on the sheet.  I then took these in and scanned them before adding them to a movie maker program and mapping the song to the images. This sounds quite technical but in reality it was quite easy to do but a little time consuming. However this was all worth it on seeing the reaction of the students when they saw the finished article. The students were delighted and wanted to see it over and over again.

The audience initially was the students, their peers and I. We played the video in class and everyone was welcome to comment on the finished article. In order to maximize the English learning content of the project I also had students mill together with their finished pictures and describe them to each other and talk about what they drew. Some were quite literal while others had a more abstract quality to them. Additionally I made an art gallery on the wall and asked students to write critiques on post it notes and stick them on the pictures. They enjoyed this element of feedback and were very positive to each other. I then asked the students if they would mind if I published this on YouTube so that they could have their parents view the work as well. This created a new level of interest and students were very pleased to see this. Initially I hadn’t thought to do this but it was clear to me I should have said this from the start to maximize the motivation. On doing this activity again with another class I said from the start that this would be published on the internet and the motivation to do a better job was elevated.

From this activity I started to think more about how important an audience is to motivation particularly among teens and particularly with a class that a teacher sees often.  Most likely the teacher is the only audience a student has and after a while this desire to please (the teacher) can be diminished because of the familiarity. There is a saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and while ‘contempt’ may be a bit too strong of a word there is some truth there. So to combat this I have thought of some ideas to provide more motivation through creating different audiences both internal i.e. in the school and external.

Internal External
Classroom walls

Make sure your classroom walls are full of students work and keep it fresh.

Social Media, school websites and YouTube

The potential here is endless but just make sure that if you are using children’s images that you have the correct level of parental consent

School corridor Walls

As you would in the classroom, put students work in the corridors and encourage feedback from other students. This not only promotes your students work but also you as a teachers

Local forums

There will often be local forums where people are seeking advice. This is a good way for students to have real life interaction however this must be closely monitored or done through a proxy (you) to avoid any child protection issues

Presentation in class / assembly / end of term events

Most schools will have an end of term presentation or assembly. Talk to the person responsible for this to see if you can have some time for your students to present. This is very difficult for students but provides an enormous sense of achievement once it has been carried out.

Flipsnack (publishing site)

Create a digital scrapbook of work that students can access for years to come. You can also use this for homework tasks as well as providing models for students doing similar activities.

Scrapbook and albums

Keep copies of students work and use this as a model for future classes. It can also be used if you have fast finishers in class to look through. Knowing that their work will be seen by students in future years is a great motivator.

Distribute at airports, shopping malls etc.

A common task for students is to create a ‘Dos and Don’ts’ list for visitors to their country. Instead of keeping this internal and therefore negating the real need to do the task, have a number of copies printed and distribute them at airports or shopping malls.

My challenge to you all now is to thinking deeply before you do any activity how motivation can be increased by changing the audience or adding a new audience to the activity. I hope you have enjoyed the blog and start engaging students in new and interesting ways in the future.

Del Spafford is the Regional teacher trainer and academic consultant for Macmillan Education, Asia. He has been working in ELT for over 20 years. His experience includes 11 years with the British Council in Thailand, where he has planned and delivered teacher professional development in a variety of contexts including both private and public schools.

He is a passionate educator and publisher and thrives on integrating research-based methods and ideas into courses and supporting teachers to implement effective learning strategies in the classroom.