Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation: A Practitioner Perspective from Japan

Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation: A Practitioner Perspective from Japan

by Richard J. Sampson

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This book explores how complex systems theory can contribute to the understanding of classroom language learner motivation through an extended examination of one particular, situated research project. Working from the lived experience of the participants, the study describes how action research methods were used to explore the dynamic conditions operating in a foreign language classroom in Japan. The book draws attention to the highly personalised and individual, yet equally co-formed nature of classroom foreign language learning motivation and to the importance of agency and emotions in language learning. It presents an extended illustration of the applicability of complex systems theory for research design and process in SLA and its narrative approach shines light upon the evolving nature of research and role of the researcher. The study will be a valuable resource for practitioners, researchers and postgraduate students interested in classroom language teaching and learning, especially those with a focus on motivation among learners.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783095902
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 06/02/2016
Series: Second Language Acquisition , #101
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 243
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Richard J. Sampson is a Lecturer in the University Education Center at Gunma University, Japan. His research interests concern situated exploration of the contextualised nature of the learning and teaching of foreign languages, the interrelations between language-learner self ideas, past, present and future learning experiences, and motivation.

Richard J. Sampson is an Associate Professor at Rikkyo University, Japan. He uses action research approaches to give voice to the complex, situated experience of language learner psychology and is the author of Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation (2016, Multilingual Matters).

Read an Excerpt

Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation

A Practitioner Perspective from Japan

By Richard J. Sampson

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2016 Richard J. Sampson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-590-2



Leaving the classroom, I felt uneasy. Puzzled. As a foreign language teacher, there was something nagging me. That said, the students had not given me any overt cause for concern. It was not that they paid little attention. They had not slept, or walked out of the classroom, as I had experienced in extreme cases in the past. We were working through the material on time and on target. Each lesson they participated in the activities I had planned. Yet there was a lack of engagement, a sense of little passion. What was driving, or rather not driving, my students' motivation in the classroom each lesson?

Classroom foreign language teachers work day in and day out to foster more effective learning environments with students. Part of this quest involves striving to gain a greater understanding of what motivates learners in the classroom. While different theoretical constructs abound, the essence of motivation is that it refers to the direction and magnitude of human behaviour, that is, why, how long, and how hard people try to do something (Dörnyei, 2001: 7). It is a want towards future action. My own interest in classroom motivation has emerged from a range of experiences teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in Japan over the past 17 years. In some settings, students have professed a wish to study 'authentic', communicative oral English for travel or business. Yet while they seem to have a clear-cut purpose to their studies and are active during our time together, individual students' drive to conduct additional study outside lessons has varied greatly. In other situations, students have had very little in the way of opportunities to use English in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, students (and teachers) have together enriched the class atmosphere, the class motivation, with their enthusiasm in using basic English to carry out tasks and interactive activities.

This book presents my own journey in working to conceptualise the complex and dynamic interactions that influence the evolution of the motivation of a language class group. It describes the processes of action research through which I came to understand classroom language learning motivation as emerging from constantly changing relations between elements of the classroom system and the experiences and perceptions of class members, and why this matters. Following the work of such scholars as Miyahara (2015) and Takahashi (2013), the book also aims to lend support to a more narrative-based and situated approach to representing the insights gained through listening to the voices of those involved in additional language learning.

Setting the Scene: Misplaced Expectations

Just before commencing the research project that forms the basis of this book, I had gained full-time employment at a kosen, a Japanese National College of Technology. These colleges combine the traditional three years of senior-high school in Japan with the first two years of university. Students range from around 15 to 20 years old. The institutions specialise in producing young technologists who are ready to apply their knowledge and skills on graduation. English studies are part of a compulsory set of subjects. One of my primary motivations for seeking employment at a kosen had been my belief that the style of education would be very practical, with students learning by doing. I predicted that the clear focus of the kosen system on future outcomes – producing practical, work-ready technologists – would encourage students and teachers to be cognisant of how graduates might use English in the future in a variety of engineering fields.

My expectations turned out to be overly simplistic. Many of the students I was teaching seemed disinterested and lacking direction in their English studies. Such a decrease in motivation – termed demotivation – is something not uncommon in Japanese classrooms (e.g. Carpenter et al., 2009; Kikuchi & Sakai, 2009; see also Chapter 2). The students' apparent aimlessness reminded me of research I had conducted previously at a women's university (Sampson, 2012). While in that case the English-major learners had been engaged during lessons, conversations with them revealed very little about how they imagined themselves using English after the completion of their studies. An apparent lack of purpose and ownership of their learning puzzled me as I worked with them each lesson. I therefore decided to introduce a range of classroom activities designed to encourage them to think about their future using English. The study found students to be motivated by activities which: (a) assisted them in thinking about steps they could take towards an ideal self using English; (b) allowed them to add detail to this ideal or a feared self; and (c) had a social component encouraging them to share reflections about their (future) self ideas.

Influenced by my experiences at the women's university, my perceptions of demotivation in kosen classrooms prompted me to ask learners to reflect on their English studies. I decided to encourage students in five of my classes (18- to 19-year-old students) to write freely about why they believed they were currently studying English, and in what ways they envisioned themselves using English in the future. My concerns deepened. Responses to the first question were ultimately rather vague: words like 'globalisation', 'world language' and 'international language' were recurrently representative. Furthermore, students expressed no clear purpose for the activities they might undertake using English in the future, giving responses such as:

• 'Read something in English' (Japanese response)

• 'Listen a news' (English response)

• 'Do conversation' (Japanese response)

• 'I don't know' (Japanese response)

Although these students had been studying for a number of years at this college, their reactions indicated a disturbing lack of understanding of the purpose of their English studies in the classroom. A conversation with one of these students further motivated me in the research project that is the focus of this book.

'What Have I Been Doing for the Last Five Years?'

Nineteen-year-old Hiroki (a pseudonym) had just returned from an overseas exchange trip, his first visit to a country where English is spoken. Arriving unexpectedly at my office, he talked enthusiastically about how much he had enjoyed his experience abroad and how it had given him a new perspective on English. Yet at one point in our discussion his expression changed; he stared into the middle distance and seemed to be struggling with his emotions. 'You seem upset', I offered. 'Is there a problem?' Hiroki leaned forward and spoke intently:

'At first I thought I would be hopeless', he told me, 'but then I just thought I'd give it a try. I said something in English to another student. He understood me! And not only that, he told me his ideas. And I understood!' Hiroki's surprise and pleasure at this successful encounter were almost equally balanced by his sense of frustration: 'Here at school', he confided urgently, 'I just sat in English lessons, but I didn't realise ... I didn't know how I could use English ... if only I'd studied more ... if only I'd known before ... there was so much more I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to understand ... what have I been doing for the last five years?'

What had started as an interesting, though not unprecedented, exchange about a student's first experiences abroad turned into a deeply moving interaction that pushed me to reconsider my own actions as a classroom teacher. Hiroki's remarks clearly revealed a lack of practice in using English communicatively in his experiences in formal education; his initial expectations of his near-future were that he 'would be hopeless' in trying to communicate. However, when he at last had such an opportunity – provided not in his regular college environment but as part of a study-abroad programme – he was able to experience success and realised that English might be useful as a communication tool. His words and posture gave a sense of his motivation soaring at this newfound realisation. Yet I could also sense all too clearly his bitter disappointment as he reflected on his perception of lost opportunities in his past classroom English learning. Devastatingly, from Hiroki's perspective, his realisations about using English and resultant motivation came five years too late. He could not get back those five years in the classroom.

Hiroki's experience is perhaps not all that unusual for many around the world, for whom foreign language learning first and foremost involves study in the formal education system. While learners might ideally elect to study a particular foreign language, in many cases study is part of an additional language requirement. Yet Hiroki again reminded me that without any clear idea of how time spent in the classroom studying language connects to the possibility of using the language, learners may well 'just sit in lessons'. After all, what is the point? For learners like Hiroki, not majoring in English yet studying it as a required classroom subject in an environment in which it is not the main language, English might at times seem quite irrelevant to both their current and their future lives. The specific purposes for which policy makers, administrators and teachers assume that learners are studying English may indeed not be all that visible to the students themselves.

For Learners and Teacher: Introducing Research

Starting from such considerations, this book focuses on a research project that aimed to gain a deeper picture of the lived experience of the classroom motivation of adolescent language learners studying EFL as a compulsory subject. As a teacher-researcher, I wanted to work to create more purposeful English lessons with my students while at the same time endeavouring to understand their motivation in the classroom. The trigger for the research was my puzzlement at a gap between the fact that my students were highly likely to need English in their future careers (Koseneigo kenkyuuiinkai, 2008; see Chapter 2), and what I perceived as a common lack of interest and direction in their English studies in the classroom. Simply put, I faced some perennial pedagogical problems. Why were many of my students apparently demotivated in the classroom? What relevance was there in their learning of English? What were their ideas of themselves as future users of English? Indeed, had anyone ever asked them? How could I engage my students more actively in the classroom in envisioning themselves as future English users and investing more fully in their long-term English learning?

These and similar questions provided my own motivation for embarking on an investigation of the motivational development of students who had just entered the college. My experiences with older students at the college as well as my conversation with Hiroki gave me the impression that there could be a great opportunity in catching students at an earlier stage and encouraging them to reflect on the meaning of their English studies. At 15–16 years of age, these young adolescents transition from junior-high school at a time of life when they are developing numerous new self-descriptions and motivations based on different perceived roles, relationships with peers and a growing capacity for reflection on the function of their learning tasks (Harter, 2003; Wentzel, 2005; Wigfield & Wagner, 2005). I was scheduled to be both a homeroom teacher for one class of first-grade students – meeting once a week as an advisor for their studies and conveyor of administrative information from the college – as well as their English teacher for one of three weekly English lessons. These roles presented an ideal opportunity to undertake classroom research that could enhance the students' understanding about language learning and self at this pivotal stage in their educational journey, with the added bonus of bringing interest to lessons and furthering my own understandings of my students and what drove their motivation for learning English.

Based on these foundations, the project had three aims: (i) to gain a clearer picture of the ways in which self-concept affects language learner motivation; (ii) to explore the ways in which teacher-instigated change-action might affect students' motivation; and (iii) to generate a more complex, holistic understanding of dynamic motivation in the class group. Considering my interest in self-concept and motivation, I found Dörnyei's (2009a) L2 Motivational Self System to offer a useful starting point to conceptualise the motivation of my learners (see also Chapter 3). Moreover, with my intention to introduce activities encouraging students to reflect on their understandings of self and motivation related to English learning and their future, I applied an action research design in order to pursue the development of new knowledge and change in my classroom (Dick, 2000). The action research involved five cycles, focusing on students' experiences in their weekly English lessons as well as additional homeroom sessions over the year that we were together as a group. I develop these ideas further in Chapters 4 and 5.

Complexity in the Classroom

To jump ahead slightly, this book draws on my experiences and the understandings that evolved during this research project to illustrate how the motivation of classroom foreign language learners might be profitably conceptualised through the images, metaphoric tools and theoretical underpinnings that complex systems theory offers. My work comes at a time when complex systems theory and related approaches such as dynamic systems theory are beginning to gain increasing attention in the field of language learning motivation (e.g. Dörnyei et al., 2015a) and applied linguistics in general (e.g. Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008a). I did not, however, set out to understand classroom motivation from a complex systems perspective. Over the course of the research I became increasingly aware of the usefulness of this theory in making sense of my experiences. As such, I will introduce complex systems theory in more detail in later chapters. Nevertheless, I feel it necessary at this point to give the reader some idea of what complex systems involve.

In the scientific field there are considered to be three types of systems – simple, complicated and complex. Simple systems involve a small number of similar components which are connected and interact with each other in a predictable and unchanging fashion (Weaver, 1948). Systems of this type include trajectories and collisions. Complicated systems are used with statistical and probability mathematics. Complicated systems may involve thousands or millions of components, but again the components and interactions between components do not change. Complicated systems are considered to be predictable because 'the system as a whole possesses certain orderly and analysable average properties' (Weaver, 1948: 538; emphasis added). Examples of this type of system include molecular interactions or astronomical phenomena. Both simple and complicated systems share a mechanical construction; they can be dismantled and put together again with the same function.

However, the third kind of system, a complex system, cannot be dismantled and reconstructed in such a way. In Mitchell's (2009: 13) definition, a complex system is one 'in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behaviour, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution'. Although it is understood that at times such systems involve fewer components than a complicated system, they reveal what Weaver (1948: 539) terms 'organised complexity'. The interactions between components in these systems are not orderly and the components themselves change through mutual co-adaptation, whereby the components make adaptations based on the actions of other components. The system becomes an organised whole because of these interactions, and attempting to dismantle it would remove co-specifying elements that produce the organic whole. The study of such systems, known as complex systems theory, attempts to 'account for how the interacting parts of a complex system give rise to the system's collective behaviour and how such a system simultaneously interacts with its environment' (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008a: 1). Examples of this kind of system include ecologies, cities or economies.


Excerpted from Complexity in Classroom Foreign Language Learning Motivation by Richard J. Sampson. Copyright © 2016 Richard J. Sampson. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Tables and Figures


1. Introduction

Part One: Growth – A Research Narrative

2. Groundings from Foreign Language Learning Motivation Research in Japan

3. A Move to Socio-Dynamic Motivation

4. Research Design

5. Action Research Narrative

Part Two: Re-viewing

6. Revisiting Complex Systems Theory

7. Class Group as Open System

8. Co-Adaptation between Self and Environment

9. Motivational Phase-Shifts and Self-Organisation across the Class Group

10. Novel Motivational Emergence in the Class Group

Part Three: Reciprocity

11. The Landscape of Classroom Motivation

12. Conclusion and Iteration       





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