Jeremy Harmer's Theory of Motivation

     Under Harmer’s theory, affect, agency, achievement, attitude, and activities are all crucial aspects of motivation. To focus on improving affect positivity, teachers can try to minimize their time spent as controllers, introduce more colorful (and carefully chosen colors of) classroom decorations, and aim for more activities and class discussions on topics that the students find interesting independent of their language learning.
       To improve motivation with activities, teachers should attempt to strike a balance between challenge and exhaustion. Very simple activities will not motivate the students, and will cause affect to decrease if used after students have proclaimed them to be “too easy” or if used frequently/repetitively.
       To improve motivation via achievement, teachers must first determine what kind of achievement is important to their students. In some classrooms, stickers (especially shiny or scented stickers) are sufficient to motivate students to achieve good grades. Other situations require something more complex, like the establishment of awards recognizing achievement or suggestions to submit particularly well-written pieces to competitions or conferences outside of the school.
      Agency and attitude are the hardest aspects of Harmer’s motivational theory for a teacher to influence, because these largely come from other aspects of the student’s life outside the classroom. Being available outside of class for students to talk to can certainly help with these things, but there is only so much that would be appropriate for a teacher to help with in many cases. Additionally, teachers are mandatory reporters, which could prevent students from going to the teacher with certain types of problems that affect their agency and attitude in the classroom.   What can be done is provision of optional activities to give students the ability to choose whether they want to complete the work (especially for repetitive or boring practice on topics that some students really need to review but others are on top of) and allowing students to volunteer for things, such as presentations or answering questions, in class as much as possible, rather than assigning tasks or calling on raised hands to increase students’ feelings of agency.
     The best thing a teacher can do for attitude is to work on their own attitude. A teacher who comes into the classroom in a spirit of equality in the US, expertdom in China, or other culturally-appropriate modes in other countries will make the students feel more comfortable expressing the attitudes expected of them. A teacher who comes in and lectures all the time with an attitude that only their opinion matters because they’re the expert will not be well-received in a US American classroom, but a teacher who enters the classroom in a spirit of equality expecting students to provide equally meaningful contributions would have a similar experience in China. The American students would think their teacher bossy, but the Chinese students would think theirs wishy-washy and unknowledgeable. In a second language classroom with students of mixed backgrounds, it may be impossible to find a cultural common ground here, but keeping in mind the proportions of your audience and aiming different portions of the class at different segments can help to improve attitude.


Maggie F.

Mandarin-Speaking American ESL Tutor

20+ hours
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