Taking a Situated Look at the Complexity of Classroom Motivation

7 June 2016

This month we published Richard J. Sampson’s book Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation. It brings together work on motivation in language learning using complexity theory and action research. In this post, Richard discusses how the book came together.

9781783095889Although motivation and self-concept have come to be recognised as key aspects of additional language learning, much work has centred on the development and validation of general theories rather than exploring practical approaches to motivation in the classroom (Lasagabaster et al., 2014). In the research presented in this book, I wanted to start from a different perspective, from the everyday reality of my work as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher in Japan. While many of the non-English-major adolescent students I work with seem to recognise the importance of their studies, this recognition often does not translate into engagement and motivation in the classroom. The book presents a practitioner-led journey whereby action research processes – the study deliberately introduced change-action into the classroom setting – were used for the double-edged purpose of working to foster more engaging and motivating lesson environments for my students and to gain a deeper understanding of the motivation of a language learning class group.

A variety of questions thrown up by the emergent processes of action research fostered an increasingly complex and dynamic picture of students’ desire to study in the classroom. What colours of the life experiences of an individual suddenly spur a student into life from some trigger in the classroom? How do students perceive and act on comparisons with others in the learning group? How do the future self-concepts of learners dynamically develop as they interact in the classroom? And importantly, in what ways do these perceptions and actions shape the trajectory of motivation in the whole class group? As the research progressed I found that ideas from complex systems theory offered a useful way of understanding the kind of interactions that I was uncovering to provide some (situated) answers to these questions and more. Although I realize that “complex systems theory” sounds quite daunting, I hope that combined with the multiple perspectives on the same context of action achieved via the action research, the book provides a convincing argument that classroom motivation can be more profitably conceptualised with a focus on not only individuals but also the class group as a whole.

The primary focus of the book is this application of complex systems theory to understanding the dynamic and co-forming nature of the motivation and self-concepts of additional language learning students. However, in presenting the study, I felt it important to maintain a sense that this was research conducted by someone who was also a part of the class group. Indeed, complex systems theory would urge that the observer (in this case myself as teacher/researcher/author) is very much part of that being studied. All too often the teacher/researcher is written out of representations of research. Moreover, I did not feel it methodologically or philosophically justifiable to present a tidied up, static picture of the research which placed a large emphasis on outcomes and positioned myself as an “accomplished expert”. As such, the book provides a detailed account of not only the understandings at which I arrived, but also an exposition of the processes by which these understandings evolved. Through the narrative of my experiences I hope to encourage fellow teachers to become more agentic in the development of educational theories of classroom practice and learning.

If you would like to contact me about the book, please email me at: Richard Sampson, sampson@gunma-u.ac.jp.


Lasagabaster, D., Doiz, A., & Sierra, J. M. (2014). Introduction. In D. Lasagabaster, A. Doiz, & J. M. Sierra (Eds.), Motivation and foreign language learning: From theory to practice (pp. 1–5). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Dornyei-MercerFor further information about the book please see our website. You might also like some of our other titles on a similar topic: Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei et al and Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA edited by Sarah Mercer and Marion Williams.

The Quest for Authenticity in Japan

1 June 2016

This week we are publishing Richard S. Pinner’s new book Reconceptualising Authenticity for English as a Global Language which examines the idea of authenticity in English language learning. In this blog post, Richard  explains how his quest for authenticity developed.

Reconceptualising Authenticity for English as a Global LanguageWhen I came to Japan, I had no idea that I was beginning a quest for authenticity. Before moving to Japan, I worked in London. If I wanted to give my students an authentic experience of the English language in use, I just had to ask them to look out of the window. Their lives were inherently entwined with meaningful interactions in English, because they were living in an English-speaking environment. Authenticity seemed to be part of the package.

However, when I moved to Japan I realised that things are not so straightforward for the majority of English learners around the world. Creating meaningful and relevant experiences of using English became my number one challenge. I also became much more aware of the ‘soft power’ effect my cultural upbringing was now having on my students, as I selected materials which presented certain worldviews and ideologies. Things I had not previously considered became problematic issues. In London I represented the local; the one with insider knowledge, links and cultural connections. Working in Japan I was now an outsider, and I had to adapt myself just as much as the materials I was planning to use for my lessons.

My research into authenticity grew out of my research into motivation, and hence I approach the subject from a complexity theory perspective. What this means is that I now try to avoid over-simplifying or compartmentalising things, and I try to make my teaching about contextualised experiences rather than about materials. In order to do this, I have to focus on the individuals in my class and help them to find their own authentic voice in English. I also have to find a way of helping these individuals to bridge their way into a social community of English users.

Japanese learners are often written about in terms of motivation (or lack thereof) and there are many workshops held at conferences in Japan which address issues such as ‘silence’ in the classroom. The stereotype is that it can be hard to encourage Japanese learners to speak as themselves. In my own experience, I think this is an issue related to authenticity, and overcoming such obstacles is as much about the teacher changing their perspective as the students learning new skills. In the book, I try to explain the global situation of English language education as it relates to the construct of authenticity, while providing relevant examples from my own experience as a language teacher. I hope that anyone who reads it will find it interesting and empowering, because authenticity is a central component to successful second language acquisition.

Authenticity, Language and Interaction in Second Language ContextsFor further information about this book, please see our website. You might also enjoy another recent title Authenticity, Language and Interaction in Second Language Contexts edited by Rémi A. van Compernolle and Janice McGregor.

Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning

23 October 2014

This month marked the publication of Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter MacIntyre and Alastair Henry. In this post we find out how the book came together.

9781783092550That Zoltán Dörnyei and Peter MacIntyre would embark on a project of putting together an anthology of papers applying dynamic principles to the investigation of motivational phenomena is perhaps not surprising. For some time both had been shifting their research interests in dynamic directions. While in his 2009 book The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition Zoltán mapped out the ways in which CDST (Complex Dynamic Systems Theory) could provide an important, game-changing approach to the study of individual differences, Peter had begun work developing pioneering methodologies that could capture moment-by-moment fluctuations in motivation. Both were also very aware that while most of the cutting-edge theorizing in SLA took it for granted that the future lay along the dynamic path, empirical research had lagged behind and continued to follow traditional, non-dynamic research approaches. Quite simply the time was right for a collection of papers investigating the dynamics of L2 motivation and drawing on CDST principles in such research.

Testing the water, Zoltán first broached the idea of a CDST-inspired motivation anthology with Tommi and Laura at the 2012 AAAL conference in Boston. Buoyed by their enthusiastic response, the ball started to roll. Shortly thereafter invitations to contribute were sent out to over 40 researchers working with L2 motivation and here too responses were overwhelmingly positive. To keep the momentum for the project growing, Zoltán and Peter organized a well-attended colloquium at the 2013 AAAL gathering in Dallas where John Schumann provided an inspiring introduction and, in her role as discussant, Diane Larsen-Freeman assessed the contributions, arguing persuasively that motivation researchers should continue the journey now started along a CDST pathway. The energy generated by the symposium was sustained at a subsequent reception hosted by Multilingual Matters at the convention center where many of the book’s contributors met to enjoy a drink (thanks Tommi and Laura!) and to discuss ways forward.

However, while Zoltán and Peter were delighted at the enthusiasm generated by the project, privately they were concerned about the scope of the undertaking and the time investment that the putting together of such a large and pioneering collection of papers would demand. Realising that, unless the editorial team was expanded, they would be locked to their desks for next eighteen months, they invited Alastair to breakfast the day following the colloquium and, in true Godfather style, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

With Alastair on board and chapter drafts beginning to arrive, the following eight months saw the team working intensively with the submissions, hardly a week going by without flurries of email correspondence. At the most crucial moments, skype meetings were held early morning (for Peter in Canada) and late afternoon (for Alastair and Zoltán in Europe). Difficult editorial decisions were discussed among the three editors over skype. Whereas the quality of the papers was uniformly high, not all could be included in the volume. Not because Multilingual Matters had any upper limit (Tommi had even promised Zoltán that the book could stretch to two volumes if necessary!), but because early on the editors realised that for the book to be a success – i.e. that it could provide a series of research blueprints that would enable graduate students and established researchers alike to embark on CDST-inspired projects – it was imperative that only those papers that truly instantiated dynamic approaches could be included. Making these decisions was by no means an easy task and several high quality papers that have now been published (or are in press) in other forums were turned down.

After another intensive period of editing, the manuscript began to take shape. In the summer of 2014 a final draft was sent to Multilingual Matters. Not only had an impressive range of empirical studies been put together (many employing novel methodologies), but the manuscript also included a series of conceptual papers dealing with CDST concepts and terminology. Contributions from leading scholars such as Diane Larsen-Freeman, Kees de Bot and Marjolijn Verspoor map out some of the fundamental principles of CDST, such as the role of attractor states, timescales, initial conditions and context. These concepts will be new and unusual to some readers of the volume, so the 10 introductory chapters were designed to provide ‘one stop shopping’ for readers entering the CDST field.

The empirical section of the book features a dozen highly original empirical studies. Motivation-related concepts that are familiar to teachers and researchers alike are dealt with from a dynamic perspective. These concepts are studied with a series of innovative and creative methodological approaches that provide richly detailed information about motivational processes. Although there are a number of ground-breaking ideas that emerge from these empirical investigations, the fact that so many types of studies are possible surely bodes well for the future of the dynamic turn in SLA. The empirical studies included in the volume demonstrate how to do research under a CDST umbrella.

The book (which, much to the relief of MM remained a single volume!) is not just the product of the dedication and hard work on the part of the contributors. It is also a statement of intent. As one of the contributors put it, “once a researcher understands the complexity worldview, in a sense there is a transformation in thinking. Everything you observe and experience from then on – whether it involves personal relationships, parenting concerns, events unfolding in contemporary society, to say nothing of SL classroom phenomena – is nothing if not complex and dynamic”. The social world around us is dynamic and, even though CDST inspired research is more challenging (empirically and conceptually), once such a transformation in thinking has taken place, turning back it isn’t always that easy.

When Zoltán, Peter and Alastair set out on this project they set themselves a challenge; they could either initiate a robust research project that took well-established motivation constructs and, by applying dynamic principles to their investigation, produce convincing empirical evidence for the sustainability of the approach, or they would need to come to terms with the fact that the dynamic approach in SLA might be an attractive but ultimately unrealisable idea. The production of this volume has served as this testing ground. If nothing else, the research collected here is a sign that some researchers have found the CDS approach both ‘cool’ enough to explore in a research project and ‘hot’ enough to inspire new ideas.

Capitalizing on Language Learners' IndividualityMotivation, Language Identity and the L2 SelfMotivational Dynamics in Language Learning is now published – more information is available on our website. You might also be interested in Zoltán and Peter’s other books: Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self and Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality.


The Impact of Self-Concept on Language Learning

17 October 2014

We recently published The Impact of Self-Concept on Language Learning edited by Kata Csizér and Michael Magid. Here, they give us a bit of background on their innovative volume.

The Impact of Self-Concept on Language LearningDespite the fact that there is an abundance of self-related research studies nowadays, we think that our book managed to carve out a unique niche in the field of Applied Linguistics for a number of reasons. Firstly, we provide an up-to-date and easy-to-follow theorerical background to self-related investigations. Secondly, we contribute to the discussion by publishing original empirical studies on self-related topics concerning both students and teachers. Thirdly, we have included the results of several intervention studies that looked into the classroom and investigated in what ways students can be motivated to learn by developing their selves. Last but not least, we also provide insight into how the self-concept may be researched in the future by outlining the most promising avenues.

As the editors of this book, we were inspired to create a volume on the impact of self-concept on language learning by Professor Zoltán Dörnyei. This volume deals with the following major themes: 1. Second language learning motivation and its relation to vison and mental imagery. 2. The relationship of one’s self and one’s network. 3. The impact of self on self-regulation and autonomy. 4. Age-related differences in self. 5. The development of students’ identities in various contexts including Europe, Canada, Asia and Australia. 6. The dynamically changing motivation of teachers. 7. The strengthening of students’ ideal self and motivation through different intervention programmes.

We sincerely believe that our collection of chapters clarifies the meaning of various self-constructs in order to highlight how the self-constructs may be researched. It also specifically focuses on research that illustrates the effects of self-concept on language learning including the practical applications of the research findings in order to motivate language learners.

Motivational Dynamics in Language LearningIf you would like more information about this book please see our website. You might also be interested in our recently published title Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei et al.

Motivation, Self and SLA

26 September 2014

Measuring L2 ProficiencyOur SLA series brings together titles dealing with a variety of aspects of language acquisition and in situations where a language or languages other than the native language is involved. It is an inclusive series that embraces books written from a range of theoretical stances and perspectives and accordingly recent titles have ranged from Measuring L2 Proficiency to Discontinuity in Second Language Acquisition and Studies in Second Language Acquisition of Chinese.

That said, for the Multilingual Matters SLA series, this year has seen a bit of a boom in the areas of motivation and the self.  You may have read our blog posts about Laura’s trips to Nottingham for the International Conference on Motivational Dynamics and Second Language Acquisition in August and to the Psychology and Language Learning Conference in Graz earlier in the year.

Motivational Dynamics in Language LearningAlongside these conferences, the publications in our SLA series on these topics are really flourishing.  We started the year with the publication of Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA (edited by Sarah Mercer and Marion Williams) and recently followed it up with The Impact of Self-Concept on Language Learning (edited by Kata Csizér and Michael Magid). We are soon to follow these two collections up with the exciting addition of Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter D. MacIntyre and Alastair Henry to the series.  And of course, I shouldn’t forget to mention our numerous previous publications on this subject area (Gregersen and MacIntyre (2014), Apple et al (2013), Taylor (2013)…) which are all well worth discovering.

Language Learning Motivation in Japan

8 January 2014

A couple of months ago, we published Language Learning Motivation in Japan edited by Matthew T. Apple, Dexter Da Silva and Terry Fellner. Here Matthew gives us a bit more detail about how the book came together.

Language Learning Motivation in JapanLanguage Learning Motivation in Japan began to coalesce as a feasible book project during preparations for a conference in Tokyo, in June 2011. We had already contacted and arranged for guest speakers from both inside and outside Japan, and all six graciously offered to contribute chapters to the book project.

Ultimately the conference attracted over 200 participants from around the world. Given the difficulties those of us based in Japan had recently experienced following the triple disaster of 3-11-11, it was extremely motivating to encounter so many dedicated language teachers and researchers. After the conference ended and the book project began in earnest, the response was overwhelming. We initially received well over 50 chapter abstracts but narrowed this down to eleven chapters to be included in the book.

We asked the authors to review each others’ chapters and encouraged them to refer to similar or contrasting concepts and findings in other studies in the book. By doing so, we believe the resulting book presents a clear, coherent snapshot of language motivation at various levels of education in Japan. Chapters touch upon salient issues related to motivation such as autonomy, cultural and personal identity, self-efficacy, intercultural competence, communities of practice, and the role of the teacher.

A key feature of the book is the inclusion of a roughly equal number of studies implementing quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods data analysis techniques. The main reason for this was our desire to encourage SLA researchers to look beyond the stereotypical quantitative-qualitative false dichotomy that often paralyzes and prevents communication among researchers and teachers. By including studies from statistical modeling to in-depth interview case study to diary study, we hoped to convince readers, whether established researchers and teachers or those in training both inside and outside Japan, to view such research approaches as complementary rather than conflicting.

Finally, as editors who consider ourselves teacher-researchers, we were keenly aware of the gap that exists between those in the field of SLA who see themselves as more or less pure researchers and those who regard themselves as down-to-earth practitioners at the chalkface. In our view, the teacher-researcher divide is just as much a false dichotomy as qual-quan. Both roles and both ways of approaching language education are essential: they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. We therefore encouraged authors to consider how their research could inform practice in the language classroom, and we hope the results will prove useful from both a pedagogical and a theoretical point of view.

While the research is tightly focused on language learning in Japan, we believe that teachers and researchers around the world will find value in every chapter. This focus, rather than reducing the applicability of the findings, further illustrates the multifaceted, dynamic, nuanced, and incredibly complex world of language learner motivation, and also brings up intriguing questions regarding the influence of “culture” on learners’ attitudes. Additionally, much recent world news about Japan has been rather negative: we hope that the research and teaching theories, research, and practices discussed in Language Learning Motivation in Japan provide positive examples of an active, growing community of language learners and educators.

For more information on this title and for ordering information, please visit the book’s page on our website here.

Identity and Language Learning

10 December 2013

This autumn we published the 2nd edition of Bonny Norton’s book Identity and Language Learning. Here, we ask her a few questions about the new edition.

Identity and Language Learning The first edition of your book Identity and Language Learning was published in 2000. How has the field changed since then and why did you see a need to update the book?

As I indicate in the Preface to the second edition, my students at the University of British Columbia encouraged me to bring out my 2000 book as an ebook. I was excited by the idea of making my work more widely accessible – and affordable! This is why the subtitle of the second edition is: “Extending the Conversation”. It was also clear that research on identity and language learning had grown exponentially over the past decade, and that there was a need to locate the earlier research in this wider literature. In the Introduction to the second edition, I update the literature on identity and language learning, including an elaboration of my theory of investment. Issues of imagined identities and imagined communities are also central in this literature review. I have taken the opportunity to address other related areas of interest such as teacher identity, digital identity, and transnational identity. Claire Kramsch’s Afterword places the text in its wider historical context, and is an inspired piece of writing.

How has the term ‘identity’ evolved since the publication of the first edition of your book?

What my 2000 book did was to highlight the ways in which a poststructuralist theory of identity can contribute to an understanding of language learning and teaching. The idea of identity as multiple, changing, and a site of struggle has helped to inform debates on language learning and teaching, and these ideas have gained momentum over time, particularly with emerging scholars.  The theory of investment has also helped to inform changing conceptions of motivation in the field, as exemplified in the work of Zoltan Dörnyei and Ema Ushioda.

How then does your theory of investment differ from conventional theories of motivation?

Investment is a sociological construct, while motivation is a psychological construct. This is a very important distinction between the two constructs.  The construct of investment helps teachers to understand the relationship between engagement in learning and learner identity. It also highlights the ways in which relations of power might impact social interaction in classrooms and communities, both virtual and face-to-face.  For example, a teacher might have a seemingly unmotivated student who doesn’t participate or talk in class. But if the student, for example, is a good guitar player, the teacher could say, “let’s have a jam session and play some music.” The student’s identity then shifts from ‘unmotivated student’ to ‘musician’, and the student becomes more engaged in the activities of the classroom. The student may have always been motivated to learn, but not necessarily invested in the language practices of that particular classroom. Because of the jam session, the relationship between the student and the class changes, and the student begins talking with greater comfort and ease. The identity ‘musician’ gives the student more power in the classroom.

Can you elaborate on how investment relates more specifically to teacher identity?

To consider a different scenario: there may be a disjuncture between what the teacher (or school) considers good teaching, and what particular students (or their families) consider good teaching. Such a disjuncture may arise from different cultural traditions with respect to pedagogical practice, and what are perceived to be productive relationships between teaching and learning. For this reason, it is helpful for the teacher to ask not only, “Why is this student not motivated to learn?” but also, “Why is this student not invested in the language practices of my classroom?” The construct of investment assumes that both learners and teachers are central in the learning process, which is open to negotiation and change. How can teachers ensure that students are invested in the language practices of their classrooms? The most important challenge for the teacher is to promote practices that validate student identity and encourage student investment.

Does your future research address issues of identity?

Any research that includes human participants will have implications for theories of identity and investment, and this includes questions of researcher identity. Like many scholars in the field of language education, one of my identities is that of a transnational citizen, having been brought up in South Africa, had children in the USA, worked in Canada, and done years of research in Uganda. Over the next few years, I will be active in the groundbreaking African Storybook Project, an initiative of the South African Institute for Distance Education (see http://www.saide.org.za/african-storybook-project). This project draws on advances in digital technology to promote the multilingual literacy of children in sub-Saharan Africa. Open access digital stories, in multiple languages, are currently being developed for the three pilot countries of South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. The stories are being uploaded on a comprehensive website, available for use not only in Africa, but also in the wider international community. As research advisor on this project, I’m helping to set up a research network that will advance the goals of the African Storybook Project. As learners, teachers, and communities engage in innovative ways with digital stories, there will likely be important shifts in both teacher and student identity. It’s a very exciting project, with huge implications for the future. Check out the 10-minute YouTube video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc-qjmdetp8&feature=youtu.be

You can find more information about Bonny’s book on our website

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