Why aren’t students motivated to learn? Little has vexed me more than this particular question over the course of my career. And while I have certainly sought the answers during my first two decades in the classroom, the answers elude me, and I remain certain of only one thing: for the most part, kids have little motivation to engage–truly engage–in what we call learning. This month we will explore and seek to better understand what truly motivates students to learn, hopefully turning understanding into action by doing differently in the classroom.
Is it grades? For a time, naively and stubbornly, I clung to the notion that grades motivated students to engage in learning. And so, for years, I attempted to make kids learn, using grades as both punishment and reward. I wasted many a year here.
Is it me? Maybe if I am engaging, the kids will be more engaged. And though there is some truth found in this approach, I have often wondered if the kids were really more engaged or just more entertained. Good teachers have to be engaging, but good teachers, I believe, also know that being engaging alone is not enough to truly engage all the kids in learning. At least, that has been my experience. Of course, it may be that I’m not as engaging as I think.
Is it parents? I became a more empathetic teacher when I became a parent. As a young, yet-to-have-any children-of-my-own teacher, I imagined that parents getting their children to be more committed to education simply required their telling them to do it. Just do it, right? As if. Now, with children of my own, I know and fight the nightly battles to get my children to do their homework, listening to a litany of reasons for why they don’t want to do it, ranging from boredom to frustration. And sometimes–hear comes the confession of the public-school teacher who’s also a parent, I give in. I am human, I am a parent. I get it. And while I know that parents play a very vital role in their children’s education, the answer cannot simply lie in parents’ parenting. There has to be a better answer.
Is it the future? The future can be scary. And it seems we teachers count on and exploit that to motivate our students. “You have to pass the state assessment…, If you fail this class…, If you want to go to college…, If you want to get a good job…, It will hurt your GPA…, This will be on the final…, When you get into the real world….” Admittedly, sadly, I believe all of these scare tactics have crossed my lips over the years, especially early on, but now, thankfully, I know better, for these rarely inspire commitment and more often coerce compliance, which does not elicit engagement.
Is it students themselves? The longer I’m at it, and the more I learn, I have become increasingly suspicious that the truth of the matter lies somewhere within this realm. Yes, to varying degrees, the above considerations matter and play a role in motivating some students, but not all. And while we will continue to use them, despite their limited success, I wonder if we shouldn’t instead focus our energy here. That said, I am not suggesting that we simply dump it on the kids. No, to be sure, but I am suggesting that maybe we need to work harder to create learning opportunities that transcend traditional approaches that emphasize extrinsic factors and compliance, and focus instead on approaches that trigger intrinsic factors and commitment.
In the end there are no simple answers, and as with most things, the truth is probably closer to the middle than the ends, but without answers, we will never arrive at a truth. So, over the next month, let’s seek some solutions, some answers to the question: What will it take to truly motivate students to learn?
Teachers, please join this month’s Teacher Talk conversation post (http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=118) by discussing the question: What works and does not work for motivating students to learn in your classroom?
Students–both past and present, please join this month’s Student Say conversation post (http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=120) by discussing the question: What really motivates you to learn?
Parents, please join this month’s Parent Perspective conversation post (http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=122 ) by discussing the question: From home, what works and does not work for motivating your children to learn?
Public, please join this month’s Public Platform conversation post (http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=124) by discussing the question: Now that you are on the outside looking in, how did your motivation impact your own education and what implications has that had in your life after school?
All, please join the conversation–any part of the conversation, for your words matter.