Kick-start the learning engine,or use a key?

March 2011


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BOB SULLO looks at options teachers have for awakening student motivation.

New Zealand has a curriculum recognised world-wide for its flexibility and the freedom and empowerment it gives to teachers and schools in shaping their own directions.

I started teaching English in 1974. At that time – at least in the US – teachers had a lot of latitude regarding what was taught. Because I really enjoyed Shakespeare and Greek mythology, my students got a heavy dose of that. I shied away from those things I found less interesting and no-one seemed to care.

In the US today, there is greater uniformity and the curriculum we offer is stronger than ever. While some might suggest there is not enough flexibility in the curriculum, a mobile society demands a level of curricular conformity.

Variations in curricula are evident across the world. Instructional practices have also improved dramatically in recent years. Like many of my colleagues, I learned ‘on the fly’. Teachers just entering the profession today have vastly superior instructional practices.

But despite gains in both curriculum and instructional practices, learning hasn’t increased dramatically. Too many students fail to graduate from high school at a time when more and more jobs require higher education. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the kids who remain in school function as little more than “enrolled dropouts”, physically present but disengaged and often disruptive.

What’s going on? How can we have an improved curriculum and better instructional practices and still struggle to improve our schools? My contention is that we have done a great job with the ‘what’ (curriculum) and the ‘how’ (instructional practices), but we have somehow missed the ‘who’ (students). We cling to a flawed model that suggests our job as educators is to motivate our students and we rely on a mechanistic model that attempts to shape students through the use of rewards and punishment.

The reward/punishment, carrot and stick approach works reasonably well with those students who want to learn what we are trying to teach. Given a strong curriculum, good instructional practices, and a student body who want to learn, teachers generally do their job quite well. But many students aren’t interested in learning what teachers are trying to teach. To put it bluntly, a stronger curriculum and improved instructional strategies won’t make much of a difference until more students are engaged.

Where do we begin? First, it’s essential to realise that we aren’t motivated from the outside by rewards and punishment. We’re motivated from the inside. Everything that motivates us is related to basic needs shared by everyone: to connect and belong, to develop power and competence, to be free and autonomous, to have fun, and to feel safe and secure. If you want your students to be motivated by what you’re teaching, create learning opportunities that allow them to satisfy these needs as they immerse themselves in the work you provide. Examples include:

- Belonging: give students an opportunity to connect with each other. Include some cooperative activities and group work so students meet their social need while being productive. As Sir Ken Robinson says: “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.”

- Power/competence: since we’re driven to feel competent, make sure students experience success when they put forth reasonable effort. If students believe they’re destined to fail, they’ll find other ways to meet the need for power through disruption, bullying, or other irresponsible behaviors. By using differentiated instruction, teachers offer reasonable challenges to every student.

- Freedom/autonomy: giving students freedom doesn’t mean allowing them to do anything they want. It doesn’t mean watering down the curriculum or lowering standards. It means building in options while maintaining academic rigour. It can be as simple as allowing students to choose any one of three approved topics for a report. There is considerable research to suggest giving students too many choices is counterproductive. When there are too many items on the menu, students often feel overwhelmed and paralysed. When you give three or four options, they are able to satisfy the genetic imperative to be free while having enough structure to prevent them from feeling overwhelmed.

- <<<Fun: Dr William Glasser, the creator of Choice Theory, frequently says: “Fun is the genetic payoff for learning.” Those classrooms characterised by a sense of joy are the ones where the most learning occurs. Infusing fun into a classroom doesn’t mean there is chaos and fooling around. One of the best teachers I ever supervised frequently said, “We’re all about the work in my classroom.” She is a demanding teacher with high standards and expectations. But when I walked into her room, it was immediately clear that she and her students were enjoying themselves. The joy was palpable and her students routinely did quite well in the standardised tests. A joyful classroom supports academic excellence.

- Safety/survival: whenever we decide to learn something new, we make ourselves vulnerable. We have to step out of our comfort zone – a scary prospect, especially for students who have not had a lot of success. If we want our students to stretch themselves and allow themselves to experience vulnerability and discomfort, it’s essential that classrooms are safe and secure. The best classrooms include enough predictability and ritual to create the security needed to foster the risk-taking inherent in all new learning.

When students can connect with each other, develop competence, make choices, and enjoy themselves in a safe, secure environment, you’ll find them to be highly motivated to learn what you’re trying to teach. Instead of having too many disconnected, disengaged and disruptive students, you’ll have an engaged classroom and you’ll be able to take full advantage of the advances we have made in curriculum and instruction.

###Bob Sullo has been an English teacher, school psychologist, school adjustment counsellor, and school administrator.

Now he is a full-time consultant with several books about internal control and motivation including Teach Them To Be Happy, The Inspiring Teacher, Activating the Desire to Learn, and The Motivated Student.###