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Mastering the art of motivation

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International programmes keep academics in touch with ‘realities on the ground’, Dr Martin Lamb, senior lecturer at Leeds University, tells EL Gazette

Tell us a little about your early career, your VSO experiences and what led you finally to Leeds University.

After a disastrous early foray into the business world, I did a PGCE in history. But then I thought I’d put some distance between me and my future school pupils by teaching English abroad for a while. I didn’t return for seventeen years!

First I was in Sweden, then I joined VSO and was sent to Indonesia for a couple of years and stayed on for four more with the British Council. I did a masters degree at Lancaster in 1990–91, then spent five years in Bulgaria, again with the BC, before a further three years working on a big ADB-funded language centre development project in Sumatra.

I joined the School of Education in Leeds in 1999 and, incredibly, I’m still here.

What is your main focus now in terms of projects and research?
Since finishing my PhD in 2007, I’ve continued to develop my research interest in language-learner and teacher motivation. I think it’s important for educators to better understand why learners put effort into some things and not others, and how their interaction with the teacher (among others) affects their motivation. Learner motivation affects the teacher’s motivation too.
My latest projects have been looking at motivation and methodology in Ielts preparation classes in the UK and India. With colleagues at the University of Indonesia, I have been looking at the relationship between students’ online activity involving English and their motivation to study the language in class.

Leeds offers a wide variety of postgraduate ELT-related masters courses. Which are the most popular, and why do you think that is?
Yes, we offer a range of programmes for experienced teachers – the standard MA Tesol and also specialisms in Tesol Teacher Education, Tesol for Young Learners and Tesol and ICT. These are some of the longest-standing Tesol programmes in the UK, and when I travel abroad I will often meet people who did the MA in the 1990s – or even the ’80s. These days our most popular course is the MA Tesol Studies, which is for applicants with less than two years’ experience. This has been the growth market in postgraduate ELT over the last decade. Our USP is that this is not just a ‘lite’ version of the main MA Tesol but has been designed with the particular needs of novice teachers in mind, from start to finish.

Through your masters teaching you work with both UK and international students. How do they differ in their approach and their strengths and weaknesses?
Our MA participants are certainly very multinational, and from an academic point of view the UK students’ needs are not that different from the international. True, native-speakers have automatic intuitive control of the English language, but they still have to master new academic genres like the masters-level assignment and dissertation, while some international students who have done English-medium degrees are already expert communicators. On the other hand, we enjoy having home students on the course as, having worked abroad for many years, they often have high levels of intercultural competence and can help the international students to integrate on campus and beyond.

What motivated Leeds to run the MA in Tesol based in China? How popular is it and what has the feedback been from students?
Last year was the course’s tenth anniversary and our vice-chancellor came out to lead the celebrations in Guangzhou. We run it in collaboration with colleagues at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. There are about thirty students each year, all serving teachers in Chinese state schools or private institutes, and graduates receive a dual masters degree certificate.

This kind of international programme is important to us because it keeps us in touch with realities on the ground in international contexts of ELT. Such programmes don’t suit everyone of course; for many students, experiencing UK life and culture first hand is part of the motivation for doing an MA – as well as taking a well-deserved career break…

How are you predicting Brexit to affect Leeds in terms of student numbers and the choice of courses you offer?
The whole higher education sector in the UK is so intricately networked with Europe that a ‘hard’ Brexit could have devastating consequences. Hopefully policy makers and/or our negotiators are sufficiently aware of this that some provision will be made to allow the continuation of such well-established and obviously valuable programmes like Erasmus and the many initiatives that facilitate research collaboration. It will also be a problem for us if EU students suddenly have to pay international fees. But Tesol has always been a very international outward-looking profession, and Brexit is not going to change that.