Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

What drives language learners?

by Bradley Baurain

learning motivationIn my view, typical TESOL methodology textbooks have little insightful to say about motivation. They tend to explain, rather laboriously, about “intrinsic” and “extrinsic,” “instrumental” and “integrative.” Surely these basic descriptive labels count as common knowledge at this point? In any case, they’re only categories, not actual motivations. Language learning motivations are, apparently, all material and pragmatic: English language learners want better education and employment opportunities. The resulting curricula and coursebooks almost universally attempt to move students toward these desired outcomes.

Yet in other fields, research on human motivation has grown in depth and substance. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink has compiled the results of this research from fields such as business and psychology.[1]

Pink argues that people are motivated by three key values: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. To the extent that they have these things, they’re motivated toward better performance, and to the extent that they don’t, they’re not. Autonomy is the ability to choose, to have some authority or say over what happens. No one wants to feel like a “cubicle drone.” Mastery is the possibility of becoming good at something. This is rewarding in itself, independent of any other benefits. For example, many people learn to play musical instruments for no other reason—given that for most there will be no material or pragmatic payoff—than the pleasure of achieving higher skill levels. Purpose is when we believe our efforts are making the world a better place, as opposed to merely meeting our basic needs or serving a company’s profit motive.

While Pink is mainly concerned with the value of these understandings for the workplace, there are clearly implications for the TESOL classroom as well. I’ve observed that students are more engaged when meaningful choices are offered (autonomy), when language learning is treated as a worthy end in itself (mastery), and when some kind of transcendent goal is part of what is happening (purpose). I regularly scan my lesson plans and syllabi to make sure these elements are present or that there’s room to include them as a course unfolds.

When I introduce this framework for understanding motivation in teacher training or development sessions—often through the video listed below under “Further exploration”—both novice and experienced teachers often respond with rich discussion and stimulating ideas for modifying classroom practices and curricula. From my perspective as a follower of Christ, Pink’s approach reflects greater respect for God’s gifts of learning and language and for the complexity and dignity of learners (both individually and in community).

Nonetheless, teaching infused with autonomy, mastery, and purpose isn’t easy. For example, because I have greater knowledge and experience than the learners, the temptation is to make all the important decisions myself. Handing over meaningful choices must be a conscious act of humility and trust. Risk is involved. Faith is required. But isn’t that the way it should be?


[1] Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • With autonomy, mastery, and purpose in mind, look over your recent lesson plans and course syllabi. Where might fruitful changes be made?
  • Watch and discuss with colleagues the video listed above under “Further exploration.” If they could add one more value or motivation to Pink’s three, what would it be and why?

Post Author

BradBradley Baurain leads the BA and MA TESOL programs at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He has taught for more than 25 years in China, Vietnam, the United States, and Canada. He is the author of Religious Faith and Teacher Knowledge in English Language Teaching (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015) and co-edits the International Journal of Christianity and English Language Teaching.


Photo by Quốc Bảo from Pexels

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2019 by in autonomous learning, Bradley Baurain, motivation, purpose.

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