On the Move – Driving Motivation in Learning Environments

“The more we sell education like a corporate business, the more it becomes like one.”

In a business model of education, our motivation to learn tends to shift towards the extrinsic, with usually some incentive. For example, immigrants and international students in Vancouver want to learn English to get into better jobs or schools (e.g. SFU, UBC) , where English is a requirement to be met with tests (e.g. IELTS, LPI, LET, etc.). In which case, these students find themselves needing to learn English under a deadline, with a variety of options (traditional classroom learning, small group learning, private tutoring, online learning).

In my experience, especially in tutoring where I get to ask why students are learning something, I found many of my students want to learn in order to pass something (e.g. test, an exam, a course) to get into somewhere (e.g. college, university, job). This observation rang particularly true when I was hired to teach in a language test preparation centre for Koreans in Vancouver (whom I shall not name), where I was given lots of practice TOEFL and SAT tests to teach from. In short, I was basically teaching Korean high school students how to pass a test with 90% or higher so they can meet the English proficiency requirement for Canadian universities or American Ivy League Schools.

Compared to my experience teaching academic writing in Psychology and Education course at SFU, teaching language test preparation in a centre seemed much more rote and routine for both teacher and student. In fact, I was told by the owner and manager of the centre that it is supposed to be that way. The owner told me that I need to give them lots of homework so the parents know their children are working hard. He also told me that I need to teach them how to pass the tests because their their parents are paying three hundred of dollars a month to invest in their children’s future. Clearly I was working in a very different models of education for very different purposes. Students in the test preparation centre were learning how to pass tests, while students in a writing course were learning how to write.

If one were to ask which group of students were learning English better, it would depend on how well the match is made between the students’ reasons for learning and the teacher’s reasons for teaching, as well as the teacher’s reasons for teaching with their school’s/organization’s reasons for providing their educational services.

Here, we see Daniel Pink addressing this kind of issue in a TED talk.

In his case for driving intrinsic motivation in American businesses, he presents several pieces of evidence that show corporate staff employees perform better in complex and creative tasks when they are intrinsically motivated (e.g. The Google Way: Giving Engineers Room). For mechanical and routine tasks, employees performed better when they are extrinsically motivated (e.g. Incentives and Creativity in Groups by Sam Glucksberg, with searches made from Google and Wikipedia, no less).


To establish his point, Pink presented his audience with the Candle Problem, which we see below. The problem was known for getting participants to think outside the box (in the literal and figurative sense) to solve a simple yet complex problem. However, he also noted that when one changes the candle problem into mechanical problem (show participants an empty box with the tacks next to them), participants performed better with incentives. For more details on this experiment and its variations, see Video: Motivation and the Candle Problem.

If Pink’s idea is correct, then a lot of the same can be said about educational practices that operate under a business model. It’s one thing to teach students to pass tests, but it’s another to teach students how to read, think, and write critically. What many students miss, I find, is the learning and motivation gap between passing a language proficiency test and thinking critically with a given language. It seems to me, and probably many others, that extrinsic motivation works better for tests because of the nature of tests, and intrinsic motivation works better for critical thinking because of the nature of critical thinking.

Problems arise when the two start to mix, and students start to get confused. As an educator, I advocate for getting the fit right.

“In a business model of teaching English for standardized language tests, knowledge becomes a series of products, students become their consumers, education becomes corporation of institutions, and educators become their employees.”

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