As my first post, I have to credit my wife for encouraging me to begin this endeavor. I love her, and she is a constant source of inspiration.
Now, onto the main event–motivation.
I will not be putting any research into this first venture of talking about student motivation; rather, I will explore for a moment what I’ve seen and what concerns me most about what I see in many students, teachers and even parents. Be forewarned–the following is largely opinion!
What motivates you? Is it money? Power? Love? Adrenaline? Fear? Coercion? Self-promotion? Your parents? Friends? Self-interest? Selflessness?
For me, it is probably all of the above, although that is hard to admit at times. The series of questions I poised above are motivators that all came off the top of my head. Some are intrinsic (or internal) motivators while others are external (or outside) motivators. I grew up being almost naturally motivated to “do well” and make good choices. I was what you might have said is a ‘good kid.’ That didn’t make me a model student, however. In fact, my parents, under advisement of my teacher and administrators, chose to hold me back a year after Kindergarten and put me in Readiness. (My understanding is that Readiness programs are practically non-existent now.) I was an emotional child; heck, I’m an emotional adult at times, but my unwillingness to cooperate with my teacher, or even my classmates at times, put me in a socially awkward position at the age of five. Holding me back turned out to be a good decision. I met my closest elementary friends and had an age advantage throughout my grade school years. I wonder to this day if my extra year as an elementary student set me up to be better motivated throughout my school career. Did that one year allow me to mature just enough to stay more motivated in school?
The answer to the question above is debatable. After all, I graduated high school with only a 3.1 GPA and my SAT scores were nothing to gloat about. (A post for another day I suppose.) Still, I understood the importance of sitting in my desk, listening to a teacher, taking notes, studying (at least a little) and completing work so I could go to college. Admittedly, I was bored most of the time while doing this though. Many of the students I teach today lack that basic motivation to learn. It’s as though a student’s natural curiosity has been somehow obliterated. I remember always wanting to learn something in school. I thank my parents, especially my Dad, for that motivation. So why are so many of my students unmotivated to learn now that they’ve reached high school?
Part of the answer lies in the generation of kids that I’m teaching versus the my parents’ or my own generation. In the last decade in a half, the internet, the computer and the mobile device have become common place for current middle and high school students. They are not just information providers; they are a way of life. I remember seeing Zach on Saved by the Bell with one of the first cell phones in the early 90’s; it was gray, huge and ugly. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I had a cell phone of my own, and it was a lowly black and white simple Nokia. Clearly, times have changed. My students are impatient, and rightfully so as they have had instant access to information and answers almost their entire lives. There simply isn’t any motivation left for many students to learn for the sake of learning when there is an easy answer that can be Googled.
Another part of the answer comes in the form of how education has killed student curiosity. Educators can cry foul all they want against the students and parents, but the reality is that the students and parents aren’t changing, so we have to. School exists for a few purposes, but one is to satisfy natural curiosity. (Some would argue we are simply here to produce law-abiding, socially constructive contributors to the human race, but I tend to downplay this as the most pertinent existence of education.) In elementary school you can see students flourish with curiosity, but by the time they reach me in high school, many of them simply don’t care to explore any more. Suffice to say, some of our prescribed curricula has deadened our students innate interests. Just think back to the time you were in school. How many books after elementary school did you really enjoy, or even read, when they were given to you by a teacher and dissected in class? I love to read, but even I have to admit there were very few books given to me that I read in completion while in high school. If you thought it was hard on you, imagine what our current students feel when they honestly believe they are wasting their time reading an ancient text that seems to have no bearing on their lives. I think most of us would agree that literature always connects to our lives, but that doesn’t mean a fourteen year old believes that. Okay, so how do we fix this?
Great question. The answer is complicated and simple at the same time. We have to stop being know-it-all adults and look to student interests and then teach from the inside out. If we ever hope to establish intrinsic motivation in our students, we can no longer do it through external means. The next time you are starting a new unit, or even revamping a curriculum, it might be advantageous to ask students what they want to learn. I think Mark Twain said it best when reflecting on important literature presented in schools– (A) “‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.” True enough words from one of America’s greatest writers.