Saturday, January 16, 2010

What's My Motivation?

In a follow-up discussion with colleagues the other day, we discussed the role of motivation in student learning. What causes some students to care while others don't? As teachers, this is one of the questions that drives our instruction. In every class, we get a wide array of motivational levels and the problem is there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. For example, in one single class you might have the valedictorian sitting at the same table with a student learning English, with another student who is out of school half the time, and finally with a student who has a below average IQ who tries as hard as he can and still can't grasp the concept. In twenty-first century America, this variety in student motivational levels is not uncommon.

Our conversation centered around the idea of why some students are more motivated than others. As teachers, we dangle many carrots throughout our days in an attempt to reach and motivate everyone. Various carrots might include rewards, passing a class, having a classroom competition, to even graduation itself. Teachers vary in their approach as to which aforementioned carrot they choose to use in their own way. However, inevitably there will be a handful of students to whom none of these carrots will appeal to. They are the ones who we beg and plead with and still won't do what we ask of them. It is these students who leave us scratching our heads and wondering what on Earth can be done to help them.

The problem is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some students just flat out lack the motivation of their peers. The truth is that it can be a variety of reasons that might affect student learning. Some examples are English language development, home environment, learned helplessness, disinterest in the material, a poor relationship with a teacher, a failure to see the value of education, or even just general apathy itself. Some students might experience a combination of these factors as well. For example, we might have a student enter the school system from another country. That student may have not had formal schooling in his or her former country so now they are behind in school. They also might be learning English. Because this student is already behind, many teachers spoon-feed him or her the answers on their work. Therefore, when this student reaches high school they have had everything done for them and honestly don't know what it means to be a self-sufficient learner.

In trying to understand the motivation of students today, I had to look back upon my own schooling experience. I came from a middle-class family in a suburban home. Everyone in my schools looked just like me. My parents read to me and the first thing I did when I got home was do my homework. I often played computer games, and my reward for good grades was to get educational computer software such as Operation Neptune, Gizmos and Gadgets, or Ancient Empires. My bicycle combination in sixth grade was 2-0-0-7 because that is the year I would graduate from college. In college, I graduated Cum Laude from a top 30 university. When I graduated from college I knew I would get a job and that I would return to school to get my Master's Degree. I'm currently in my second semester getting that degree.

So what was MY motivation? Well, clearly it started from my parents. They both had college degrees with my dad having a master's in education. His father was a Dean at Boston University. My mom's parents both graduated from college as well. I worked hard in high school to go to a good college. I worked hard in college because I knew how fortunate I was to have supportive parents who sacrificed a lot for me to reach my dreams. Being an only child I wanted to do everything I could to make them proud of me. When I realized that I had the chance to graduate with honors, I busted my hump my last 4 semesters and made it happen. Even now in graduate school, I currently have a 3.9 GPA after one semester. I continue to work hard because I don't want to have any regrets and I don't want all my parents' hard work and sacrifice on my behalf to be for naught.

So that's my story. Now, having taught for nearly two and a half years in inner city schools I can firmly say that very few students are like me. To their credit, there are some students who work very hard and I know they will go on to college and become successful. However, there are also many students who did not have the opportunities that I had growing up for any number of reasons. I have remarked to a good childhood friend that I could never teach where he currently teaches. He currently teaches at my hometown middle school. Yes, that's right, I could never teach students like myself. I could never teach myself because I know that the vast majority of students there will be okay. They will be like myself and my friends: All graduating from high school and college and never doubting that that will, in fact, happen.

So, how do we teach students who lack motivation? Who aren't like we were as children? How do we teach students who ignore carrot upon carrot placed in front of them? It is to this question that there is no easy answer. If I knew how to do this, I would book my trip to Orlando right now and be writing my National Teacher of the Year Award acceptance speech. The truth is some students just don't care in the classroom. The threat of failing a class or not graduating has zero effect on students. They write their names on their papers and then the pencil ceases to move for the next eighty minutes. This happens every day. We beg, plead, converse with the student, try to find common interests, we let someone at home know what is going on and yet nothing seems to work. Why is it that this child has no motivation whatsoever?

Again, it could be a number of reasons as to why this student doesn't try. Yet, day and and day out there are in our classroom. They're motivated enough to come to school, just not do anything asked of them. We as teachers all have these students, scattered throughout our day. The simplest of assignments is too overbearing to be completed. There are times where you just want to grab the student's pencil and make him or her write something, anything. As teachers we sometimes feel like Sisyphus, eternally pushing that boulder up that hill. Even when our bag 'o tricks is empty, we go back and try one more thing in vain. It becomes painfully ironic that some of our most unmotivated students are the ones who motivate us as teachers to work that much harder to try and reach them.

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