Monday, August 24, 2009

Motivation in the Classroom

Watch this great TedTalk by Dan Pink.

Being the educator I am I want to look at this idea from a classroom standpoint. How will this improve education?

If we really want to over simplify educational philosophies we can say there are two basic ideas in play right now. First, there is the NCLB philosophy that views education as a simple ladder and students work their way up the ladder until they ultimately graduate from high school and are accepted into college. Second, there is the whole-child philosophy that views education as one great interconnected blob where students absorb material from all sides as they work on projects that aren't focused on one specific skill.

I don't want to argue the relative merits of each idea, or even my over-simplification, I want to discuss how to motivate students in each philosophy. My oversimplification should make the choice obvious, but for those who didn't stop and watch the video first let's take a look.

If you have problem that has a narrow focus and straight forward rules and regulations than incentive through rewards is best way to motivate your students. If you have a problem with a wide focus and no clear path to follow in finding the solution then intrinsic motivators is the way to go.

How does that work in the classroom?

If you want your students to memorize the times tables then a teacher might hand out worksheets each day and give everyone who finishes on time with a certain percentage correct a reward. Is this bad teaching? No, not if your goal is to teach the times tables. If you want to teach HOW TO MULTIPLY the lesson would be very different. That lesson might be more along the lines of "take ten minutes with a partner and figure out 3 different ways of determine the total x groups of y objects. Then explain one way to the entire class."

Is one lesson better than the other? While I would like to take a firm side one way or another the real answer is no, or NO!!!

For example as a 4th grade teacher I never taught my students the basics of multiplying. I expected my students to know and use basic one digit by one digit multiplication. That isn't to say I wouldn't work with an individual student, but I would not spend a class period on that skill. Most 4th graders do remember how to multiply from 3rd grade, but they don't actually have the times tables memorized. (One reason I hate summer vacation) So as the 4th grade teacher I would have every student tape the times table onto their desk and encourage my students to use this aid. I would also use a fast facts worksheet at the start of math class to build speed and memorization skills using rewards for students who finished on time. Then the class time would be spent teaching or, exploring as I like to say, the concept of multiplying larger numbers.

Basically, the external motivations work great when students have already learned a skill and they need to practice. Practice builds skill, speed and recognition. So the question is how do these intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) look in classroom?

We have already seen it in the simple multiplication lesson. When students are asked to work with a partner they take charge and not the teacher. The purpose comes with the goal of explaining it to the class. The mastery comes because to explain a method usually requires a mastery of the basic skill.

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