Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Motivate Me?

I finished my application and video for the upcoming Google Teacher Academy. Just in time, too. It was due by midnight last night. I submitted mine at 11:30 pm. Those that know me, know that this if fairly typical. I realized a long time ago that my procrastination acts as a bit of a defense mechanism. If I fail, I have a built in excuse - I should have failed. I didn't give myself enough time. It takes the pressure off. If I succeed, well, it is a happy bit of coincidence. However, my husband's voice has been ringing in my head recently, asking me to spend some time reflecting on this bad habit. Frustrated with my procrastination, he asked me to imagine what I could accomplish if I gave myself and my endeavors the time they deserve. But once again, I found myself leaving my work to nearly the last minute. Perhaps, I'm just not motivated.

Coincidentally, motivation was the theme of the video I put together for my Google application. Applicants were asked to put together a one minute video on either Innovation and Teaching or on Learning and Motivation. I decided to focus on motivation.

Surprisingly enough, I did start my application long before last night. A few weeks ago, I put together a survey and asked my students to think about what motivated them to learn. I shared a link to that survey with high school students around the world via my Twitter PLN. As of today, I've heard from 66 students from Pennsylvania, Oregon, and China. I also went searching through my bookcases. What had others written about motivation? And between the students' responses and what others have written, he here's what I discovered:

I hate the word motivation.

When educators use this word, it is usually in the form of - "What can we do to motivate our students?" Translation: "What can we do to force our students to do what we want them to do?" Motivation is the wrong word. Reading through the plethora of educational philosophy texts on motivation and countless education blogs, I feel that what most educators are concerned with is coercion. Not motivation. And it is no wonder. With the public and the government knocking down the doors of our schools, clamoring on about standards and grades and outcomes, teachers are in a mad dash to force our students into compliance. In fact, in Pennsylvania that seems to be the language we are using to talk about how schools have performed on state mandated exams - are schools in compliance? When did learning become about compliance?

So I found myself flipping back through the works of writers like Alfie Kohn, Paulo Freire, and John Dewey last night. And I am reminded that real learning is often times undermined by the attempt to quantify it. Alfie Kohn writes in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes,
"We want students to become rigorous thinkers, accomplished readers and writers and problem solvers who can make connections and distinctions between ideas. But the most reliable guide to a process that is promoting these things is not grades or test scores: it is the student's level of interest" (146).
In fact, we know this about even our tiniest learners. The best predictor for intelligence in toddlers is not how well or how fast they learn particular actions or achieve set milestones. Instead, one of the predictors for intelligence is a child's curiosity and interest in exploring his environment. An intelligent child is the interested child. And children want to learn. Kohn goes on to write,
"...children do not need to be motivated. From the beginning they are hungry to make sense of their world. Given an environment in which they don't feel controlled and in which they are encouraged to think about what they are doing (rather than how well they are doing it), students of any age will generally exhibit an abundance of motivation and a healthy appetite for challenge" (198-9).
I know this to be true. I see it daily in my son.

He eats up the world. Gathers it in his tiny hands, rolls it over, considers it carefully. I do not have to "motivate" him to try new things, to learn. He is curious, ready to experience the world on his own. And when I try to force him to practice this or that milestone, let's try walking today, he resists. But he will pull himself up on anything and everything, cruise along any piece of furniture that is just over two foot tall. I do not grade his progress. I do not "motivate" his learning with some intangible reward. Instead, I set him in the middle of the floor with books and shiny objects, with new toys and old, and let him discover what something is, how it works, and how he can manipulate it. I facilitate his learning by creating a learning environment. Which is what as a teacher, I should be doing in my classroom.

Kohn writes,
"The job of educators is neither to make students motivated nor to sit passively; it is to set up the conditions that make learning possible. The challenge...is not to wait 'until an individual is interest...[but to offer] a stimulating environment that can be perceived by students as [presenting] vivid and valued options which can lead to successful learning and performance'" (199).

I am a facilitator of learning, not a dictator of knowledge. I do not motivate learning. I facilitate it.
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