Monday, December 15, 2014

From Masks to Motivation

During my second year of teaching, I was blessed with an 8th grade student who taught me a valuable lesson about motivation.  The student, whom I’ll call Roger, began the year doing little, or more often, none of the work I assigned.  Each day he came to class, and each day he left—with his pencil as sharp as ever.

One day, shortly after I had handed out a unit test, Roger cut holes in the test for his eyes, nose, and mouth, and then ran around the room using the test as a mask!  We proceeded like this for three quarters of the year, with me hounding Roger to do some work, and Roger avoiding the work at all costs.  I hate to admit it, but I had a bit of a fixed mindset about motivation—some kids were motivated to do school work, and others weren’t.  Roger just wasn’t motivated, and I didn’t think he ever would be.

But shortly after the start of the 4th quarter, a magical thing happened.  We were learning about the Pythagorean Theorem, and Roger did a few problems in class. I asked him if he would like to work on the homework assignment in my room after school, and he did.  He began coming to my classroom during my prep time to work on math assignments, and when it came time to take the test on the Pythagorean Theorem, Roger put his pencil to his paper and began to take a math test for the first time that year.  During the test, he came to my desk after every problem to see if he had done it correctly.  Finally, another student suggested that he pull his desk close to mine, so he wouldn’t have to keep going back and forth.  He did just that, and while he needed lots of reassurance that he was doing just fine, he completed the test on his own.  He had learned the Pythagorean Theorem, and I learned that anyone can become motivated to do anything at any time.

Why did Roger become motivated to learn so late in the year?  I’ve often wondered about that, so when I heard about a book study at Simle using Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, I jumped at the chance to join in.  Daniel Pink describes three elements of motivation.  He summarizes decades of scientific research as he explains that the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to far greater motivation and performance than extrinsic motivators do.  Of course, many students are motivated to learn because of extrinsic factors, but many teachers in BPS are capitalizing on the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to maximize intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy relates to having control over things like what we do, how and when we do it, and who we do it with.  Teachers are increasing student autonomy in big and small ways.  They may allow students to choose a topic to learn about or simply allow them to choose a partner.  Last year, one teacher showed me a Google spreadsheet that had all of the “I can” statements for the course listed.  Students then attached a piece of evidence—maybe a photo, video, or written paper—to the appropriate spot on the spreadsheet to demonstrate mastery of a learning target.  It was a way to allow for an incredible amount of student autonomy.

Mastery involves the ability to continue to get better at something that matters.  Lately, I’ve seen several middle school teachers use a tool to help students self-monitor their progress toward a standard.  Students know they can continue to learn more and reassess to demonstrate mastery throughout the year.  The learning isn’t done just because the test is over, and that gives students a better chance at mastery.

The element of purpose is connected to our drive to do things that matter.  When I taught math, I often had a hard time connecting the work we did in class to something that really mattered to students.  Students didn’t buy my explanations of how it would be useful in the real world someday, they wanted it to matter right now, in their current real world.  As teachers throughout the district learn more about project-based learning, students are becoming engaged in work that has a clear purpose. Students are helping people, solving problems, and making cool things, and are intrinsically motivated to learn all the while.

How are you keeping students (and yourself) motivated to learn as we move into the second half of the year? What lessons have you learned about motivation? Please use the comment field; it would be great to hear what’s working for you!

Do you want to hear more from Dan Pink?  Check out this short video.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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