Student Agency: Reflections on Liam Printer’s Podcast “The Motivated Classroom”

For the past decade, I’ve focused on supporting teacher and student agency at my school. For a few years I had the pleasure of working with Liam Printer. His independent drive to be the best teacher and colleague possible was inspiring. Liam continues to inspire at the International School of Lausanne, where he is a Spanish teacher and the teaching and learning research lead, as well as the host of The Motivated Classroom podcast.

The Motivated Classroom

Liam Printer lays out a simple and compelling argument for motivation. Students – and I would add teachers, too – need self-determination to build intrinsic motivation, and building intrinsic motivation in our students – and again, our teachers – should be our goal, since intrinsically motivated learners are often those who learn more.

Light a fire, in other words. Enlist the help of those you want to teach by getting them so interested they not only learn, they keep learning, and they start to teach themselves through their own investment in the good feeling that accompanies good learning. 

Liam encountered Deci & Ryan’s self determination theory after speaking with his advisor about the success he was having with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). My first encounter with Deci & Ryan goes back to the early 1990s, when my colleague and friend KimMarie Cole, at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, confided that she thought their theory was one of the most important things we had studied. It seems Liam agrees with KimMarie. It’s time, perhaps, to go back and do some more reading myself.

“It does come down to intrinsic motivation,” Liam says, and “we need to learn about how to motivate students and [about] what motivation is.”

Deci & Ryan lay out three conditions that need to be satisfied for a learner to experience self-determination, and through self-determination, intrinsic motivation:

  • autonomy;
  • competence; and
  • relatedness.

If these needs are met, then you are likely to have greater intrinsic motivation and the potential for greater and deeper learning.

Liam words it this way: You see intrinsic motivation when people are learning out of love and personal interest. You have extrinsic motivation when people are learning for awards or to avoid punishments. While both have a role to play, the goal is increased intrinsic motivation.

If we think about a good learning experience we’ve had, as Liam suggests we do, we will probably realize that we didn’t feel “externally controlled.” In fact, we probably felt good with what we were doing, energized by it even, and we probably had a good relationship with our teacher and colleagues as we were learning.

I love this line of thinking. A J Juliani (see my blog about his conversation with Tim Logan) mentions how lectures sometimes get a bad rap. A J points us in the same direction as Liam, saying that if we want to go to a lecture because we are fired up about the topic, then that lecture can be a great way to learn, because we are there in the context of intrinsic motivation. Why lectures get a bad rap is probably because they are often delivered to an audience that is not intrinsically motivated. In other words, learners will give us teachers a bit of leeway with the mode of instruction, IF they are intrinsically motivated.

Liam goes on to mention that intrinsic motivation seems to decline as our students get older. We tend to see eager elementary students, basically, and disengaged secondary students. Deci and Ryan’s explanation includes the possibility that schools are not creating the conditions that support autonomy, competence, and relatedness, i.e. self-determination. I think Liam might add that schools are less focused on autonomy, in particular, as students get older

In his third podcast, Liam starts by reassuring us that building autonomy into the classroom doesn’t mean a laissez-faire, anything goes approach. “It’s not just free choice and free rein,” he says. The teacher can still direct learning toward course goals while creating conditions for greater autonomy. Better said: the teacher can be more successful in reaching course goals because there is greater autonomy.

We all need “opportunities to behave according to one’s interests and values.” Think about this statement for a minute in your own context. Do you get opportunities to behave according to your own interests and values? Do you get enough of them? To what degree are those opportunities, and the rate at which you have them, related to your job satisfaction? 

Students need to have “a sense of ownership,” Liam continues. He recommends that we, when possible in our classrooms, make sure students aren’t forced into doing something or coerced to do something for rewards or punishment. If you get rid of those things, then you are raising autonomy.”

What I particularly like here is that Liam is saying that teachers can begin immediately to create more autonomy, and therefore a greater chance for intrinsic motivation. Though he recognizes that traditional instruction in the language classroom (and I would add, in many classrooms, and in curriculum and assessment in addition to instruction) tends to suppress autonomy, we can do something about it. In fact, with greater autonomy we can improve both our student results and our personal job satisfaction. Improving one will improve the other.

As an example, Liam cites assessments. Simply having a variety of manners through which students can demonstrate their learning introduces greater autonomy. This opportunity is open to every single teacher, today. Perhaps you can’t change a final test, but you can change a formative assessment leading up to that final test. You can also, as Liam did when he taught at my school, have short assessments at the end of a class period, using simple cards handed to you by the students as they leave the room. Ask them to write down one thing they learned, or one way in which instruction could be changed so they could learn better, or one question they have for the next class period. Simple to do … and yet introducing just that much more autonomy in the classroom experience of your students.

“I wish,” Liam concludes, that “we didn’t have such prescribed curriculum to work within,” but even if we do, we need to think “Is there a better way for me to get this across that has the students’ interests, students’ lives, their hobbies … all part of the learning?”

I mention parallels in Liam’s comments with an interview of A J Juliani. Listen to A J and host Tim Logan on the Future Learning Design podcast.

Liam mentions being introduced to TPRS by Grant Boulanger, a Spanish teacher, trainer, and potter from Minnesota. World language teachers in particular will enjoy learning more about Grant’s work.

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