Understanding Motivation

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1 Understanding Motivation for Adult Learners
None of us are to be found in sets of tasks or lists of attributes; we can be known only in the unfolding of our unique stories within the context of everyday events. Vivian Gussin Paley       Like the national economy, human motivation is a topic that people know is important, continuously discuss, and would like to predict. We want to know why people do what they do. But just as tomorrow’s inflationary trend seems beyond our influence and understanding, so too do the causes of human behavior evade any simple explanation or prescription. We have invented a word to label this elusive topic—motivation. Its definition varies among scholars depending on their discipline and orientation. Most social scientists see motivation as a concept that explains why people think and behave as they do (Weiner, 1992). Many philosophers and religious thinkers have a similar understanding of motivation but use metaphysical assumptions to explain its dynamics. Today, discoveries in the neurosciences offer a biological basis for what motivation is. Although this understanding is very far from complete, what we know about the working of the brain can enrich and integrate fields as disparate as psychology and philosophy. From a biological perspective, motivation is a process that “determines how much energy and attention the brain and body assign to a given stimulus—whether it’s a thought coming in or a situation that confronts one” (Ratey, 2001, p. 247). Motivation binds emotion to action. It creates as well as guides purposeful behavior involving many systems and structures within the brain and body (Ratey, 2001). Motivation is basic to our survival. It is the natural human process for directing energy to accomplish a goal. What makes motivation somewhat mysterious is that we cannot see it or touch it or precisely measure it. We have to infer it from what people say and do. We look for signs—effort, perseverance, completion—and we listen for words: “I want to ...,” “We will ...,” “You watch, I’ll give it my best!” Because perceiving motivation is, at best, uncertain, there are different opinions about what motivation really is. As educators, we know that understanding why people behave as they do is vitally important to helping them learn. We also know that culture, the deeply learned mix of language, beliefs, values, and behaviors that pervades every aspect of our lives, significantly influences our motivation. What we learn within our cultural groups shapes the physical networks and systems throughout our brains to make us unique individuals and culturally diverse people. Social scientists regard the cognitive processes as inherently cultural (Rogoff and Chavajay, 1995). The language we use to think, the way we travel through our thoughts, and how we communicate cannot be separated from cultural practices and cultural context. Even experiencing a feeling as a particular emotion, such as sadness or joy or jealousy, is likely to have been conceptually learned in the cultural context of our families and peers as we developed during childhood and adolescence (Barret, 2005). Roland Tharp (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988) tells the story of an adult education English class in which the Hmong students themselves would supply a known personal context for fictional examples. When the teacher used a fictional Hmong name during language practice, the students invariably stopped the lesson to check with one another about who this person might be in the Hmong community. With a sense of humor, these adults brought, as all adults do, their personal experience to the classroom. We are the history of our lives, and our motivation is inseparable from our learning, which is inseparable from our cultural experience. Being motivated means being purposeful. We use attention, concentration, imagination, passion, and other processes to pursue goals, such as learning a particular subject or completing a degree. How we arrive...
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