Once upon a time, Professor John Wang was a teacher’s proverbial nightmare. Attending school and doing well in exams were not his priorities. But today, he is a leading researcher in learner motivation and also founded a research lab in NIE. He shares with us how motivation has changed his life.
Q: Why is it your dream to study motivation and set up the Motivation in Educational Research Lab?
I believe motivation is the key to success. I was almost a school dropout. I still remember it was during the first year in junior college when I did badly in all my subjects. The principal called me to his office, and I thought, “I’m going to be expelled from the school.”
But he said to me, “John, your results aren’t that good. I think you can do much better than that. I’ll give you one more year to try and improve on them. I’m sure you’ll be able to do it!”
Even though I was the worst of the worst, my principal believed in me and did not give up on me. I was greatly encouraged and that was the turning point of my life. I made a conscious decision then to change my attitude and behaviour. I started to attend lessons regularly and worked hard to overcome my weak foundation in the subjects.
I was educated in the Chinese stream, so I studied Chinese as a first language and English as a second language. I had never read an English book until I was in Secondary 2. That was partly why school had always been a struggle for me.
I eventually earned a place in Loughborough University. I studied hard when I was in England and became the top student of my programme. I then went on to complete my PhD under NIE’s Overseas Graduate Scholarship.
My own experience made me realize that motivation is a very powerful driving force. Our beliefs and drive can determine our destiny, perhaps more so than the abilities we were born with. It also made me appreciate the impact a teacher or principal can have on a student. That was why I chose to become a teacher. I wanted to teach and share with student teachers, not merely content knowledge on sport psychology, but about motivation: how to motivate and get the best out of a person.
Q: You know what it’s like to not feel engaged in school. Have you done any research on low-achieving students and how teachers might help them?
Currently, we’re doing a project that looks at low-achieving students, or the bottom 15% of the cohort in Math. The project aims to firstly, examine the cognitive and motivational characteristics of unmotivated students in the Normal stream, and secondly, find ways to increase motivation and academic performance of these students.
The project will identify concrete practices teachers can use to inspire the students. By managing their self-beliefs and achievement goals, teachers can transform the passive and academically disinterested students in the classroom into active, self-directed learners.
I’m a sports psychologist as well. In sports, mental strength is one of the most obvious factors in achieving peak performance. We cannot compete in a competition with only our skills. There’s a lot of psychological preparation beforehand. It’s about conditioning our mind to perform at our best. We can be well prepared for an exam, but if we panic when we enter the exam hall, we will not perform at our best.
Today, we want our students to enjoy the process of learning, and not look at learning as a chore.
– John Wang, Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group
Motivation and mental skills go hand in hand. This is something that can be better emphasized in our schools. We know that concentration is very important. If we want to learn anything, we need to concentrate. But we seldom teach our students how to concentrate.
Likewise, relaxation skills are very important. When we go for an exam or a competition, if we are too anxious and think negative thoughts, that will affect our performance but again we don’t teach our students and athletes how to relax! In the same way, having high self-confidence is very important but we seldom teach students how to build self-confidence.
Essentially, if we want to motivate a person, we’ve got to look at specific skills that we need to build on. I believe mental-skills training has a part to play when we are trying to bring out the best in ourselves or our students.
Also, there are skills to help us get rid of negative thoughts. Sometimes, when we get emotionally charged, how do we control ourselves? When we’re faced with challenges, how do we find a way out? We can train ourselves and our students in certain thought processes to navigate these situations.
Q: When you were a teacher, did you apply any strategies to motivate your students?
I have to admit what I did as a teacher was based more on intuition. I didn’t really know enough about motivation then. I do remember that at the beginning of Math lessons, I would get my students to do some breathing exercises, just to quieten down their thoughts. I used to give them scenarios such as: I’m the captain of the train. I’m going to drive the train and I want all of them to be on board the train, so that even if I’m moving at a high speed, they’re following me. I was trying to gain their attention before starting the lesson. I did not know it then but what I was trying to do was to link mental-skills training to motivation.
We had to be very creative if we wanted to create an environment where students could concentrate. At that time, we only had an overhead projector in the classroom, and not even computers. I had to deliberately plan a lot of interesting games, such using playing cards to teach Math to keep them engaged. If students are able to focus, they will feel more confident about themselves and that will motivate them.
Motivation and mental skills go hand in hand. This is something that can be better emphasized in our schools.
– John, on the importance psychological preparation
Q: Do you think our understanding of motivation has improved since the time when you became a teacher?
Yeah, definitely there is more research showing us the way to motivate ourselves and our students. We have learned that human beings have innate psychological needs and we have inner resources to motivate ourselves. As teachers, we must focus on how we can create classroom environments that can fulfil our students’ innate needs so that they can harness their own resources to motivate themselves.
If we talk about teacher education in NIE, we really need to imbue in student teachers the belief that every child can learn and instil in them a zest for learning. These values will determine, to a large extent, their commitment and will to constantly seek opportunities to better their teaching practice and to motivate and bring out the best in their students.