Teaching

Motivating our students

Motivation is the holy grail.

In education, it’s what greases the wheel. It’s what we’re all really after.

With proper motivation, our students can change the world.

Without it, in my classroom, it leads to “we never covered that” when we’ve spent a week or more on whatever “that” was.

In many classrooms — and many businesses — we are going about it all wrong. Research has shown us what works, but we haven’t really yielded it to produce results.

One of my favorite Ted Talks (which are great, inspiring, riveting videos on talks on a variety of topics) was by career counselor Dan Pink. It’s about motivation, and I think it can shed light on ways we can better motivate our students.

Pink summarizes a few experiments where researchers compare two motivating factors — rewards (aka “carrot and stick”) and simply doing the best you can do. We see the rewards system all over the world in all theaters of performance — in sales, in sports, in the classroom and beyond. Raises. Bonuses. Extra credit.

Rewards should bring out the best in us, right? Not always. The research in Pink’s talk shows that rewards produce the best results in cognitively simple tasks, such as going from point A to B or pushing buttons in a certain sequence.

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance,” Pink said. “But when the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

A study added socioeconomic status to the mix, and the results were the same. People from poorer areas had the same results. Even the London School of Economics, after evaluating 51 similar studies, concluded that financial incentives yield a negative overall performance.

How does this affect the work of educators and the lives of students?

First, the world is evolving away from the basic “plug and chug” types of work. “That routine, rule-based left-brain work … Has become fairly easy to outsource, fairly easy to automate,” Pink said. “Software can do it faster.” Our goal should be to develop higher-order thinking, and basic if-then rewards won’t do it.

Second, there are ways to motivate students — adults and children alike — to perform better in these right-brain, conceptual tasks. Pink calls them autonomy, mastery and purpose:

Autonomy — “the urge to direct our own lives.”

Mastery — “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.”

Purpose — “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

These are the core parts of what really compels us to act and to I prove. If we can tap into these concepts, we can create a new desire and passion in our students.

“Learn this because there is a test coming up.” Where does that fit in the model above?

Finding out what’s important in our students’ lives and helping them get there through what we teach. That sounds like we’re empowering them to reach autonomy and helping them master something that matters.

Pink talks about the practices of Google and an Australian software company called Atlassian. Both companies regularly give employees time to pursue their own work-related interests while on the clock. Pink said that half of Google’s new products are created because employees have great amounts of autonomy.

Autonomy makes educators cringe at times. I usually think of all the ways my students might abuse it before considering what amazing results could come out of it. But there is power in allowing students some autonomy in class work and projects.

They say that retention is greatest when material is practiced in a real-world scenario or by teaching others. Turning students loose to do that in their own creative ways could be something they remember for the rest of their lives.

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