Wednesday: On Motivation
It’s my karma. In high school my mom (and most teachers) pushed, pulled, threatened, cajoled, and promised rewards in order to get me motivated to work to my “potential”. There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth. So it is only appropriate that my students now struggle with motivation so much that it frustrates the living daylights out of me. If I hear “I could do better, but I don’t really care/try” one more time… well let’s just say the unicorn army is on high alert. But what are some positive ways to motivate students? Here are some that I’ve found work, but if you have others, please add to the comments below.
Show enthusiasm for learning/destigmatize being knowledgeable.
Somehow, and there are different given reasons for this, a good segment of America stigmatizes knowledge and/or intelligence. Even among my friends, when I say something intelligent (at least I think so) or bring up a fact from history or science, they often call me a nerd or make fun of me for being smart. I know they love and support me, and that they don’t really mean it, but the fact that they do it speaks to something larger: being accused of being smart is some sort of insult. So I’ve begun taking the words back. They are mine now and I receive the formally derogatory remarks as accolades. I am a word nerd. I am a trivia geek. I can’t stand not knowing something and I (almost) always love doing an activity that teaches me something. I also played sports in high school and had an active (sometimes too active) social life in college. These things are not mutually exclusive. I try to show that to my students every day. Being knowledgeable isn’t a bad thing; that is a myth spread by those who aren’t or those trying to get the votes of those who aren’t. Instead, I try to reverse the stigma and say that not learning, not wanting to know is what makes a person uncool. Show your student that learning is cool—be excited and share the things you learn! They’ll pick up on it, I promise. Sure, they may call you lame or roll their eyes, but the worm is in their ear and they’ll soon be doing it back to you. I wasn’t always this into learning, but I learned to be excited by the people I loved and respected.
I’ve had success motivating some students by having them explore what they want for their future and then examining some things they’ll have to do to get there. Want to get into college? Then a GPA of 1.8 probably won’t help. Want to take a summer off without summer school? Then let’s pass Biology. Don’t want an angry unicorn army at your door? Well, you get the idea. Here’s a quick link to SMARTS goal setting.
Discuss why they aren’t motivated.
It may sound weird, but actually talking to a student can help you gain a lot of information. Are the classes too hard or moving too fast? Do they have a personality clash with a teacher? On the other side, is it boring, moving too slow, or he/she doesn’t feel challenged? Do they simply not see how the information could be useful in real life? These are important questions, and cannot be answered except from the student themselves. It will, or at least should, change how we choose to motivate them as well.
Lead by example.
It may be a shock, but if you don’t read, your child probably won’t see the benefit either. Same goes for any extended learning; if you don’t show that education or learning is important to you (and not just as it applies to them and their GPS’s) then they will learn that it really isn’t that important. Kids learn, and they learn the most from their parents. Like it or not, parents are a primary source of information about the adult world for their children. Just like they learn how the adults around them deal with conflict, balance a budget, or interact socially, kids will decipher a value from you about the value of learning.
Play educational or learning games, but make them fun.
It’s amazing what happens to anyone’s mind, let alone a child’s, when we call something a game. Immediately it’s a lot more fun. This is where we get sneaky; make the game a learning opportunity. Studies have shown that students will actuallytake the initiative to engage in activities that closely resemble homework when the activity is called a game and slightly changed to resemble one. This can be something as simple as playing with blocks for a younger child (increases spatial ability) or as complex as solving an Algebra II equation to open the gates of Zoroch and save the village in a role playing game. The point is that everything can turn into a game, and there is a benefit in doing so.
No student is perfect. Every student has their own strengths and challenges, and positive gains should be celebrated—maybe not every single one, but enough for he/she to make a sort of positive connection between achievement and praise. This is a fine line, I know. Celebrating positive trends even if the whole goal is not achieved is a messy business; on one hand we don’t want to reward mediocrity, but on the other we want the student to stay positive and keep moving forward. The only out is through. Experiment with your student until you can hit the sweet spot.
(Side note: having a unicorn army has sometimes made it harder to be cool, but sometimes you’ve got to be you, and that’s the coolest thing to be.)
Undoubtedly there are other strategies and I want to hear all of them! Please add yours to the comments section below and, as always, be civil!