motivation: beyond bribes and extortion

focus less on motivation in order to motivate

So, I'm thinking about motivation and the concept of motivating students in the present to prepare them for the future. I'm thinking of the flickering cave and the confusion of what I don't know. I'm thinking of the Postmodern Pinocchio and the kids in Misfit Island and the shards of story that are left incomplete. 

I'm thinking about the whole notion of less content and less of a focus on the test and what all of that means as far as motivating my students. I stop for a moment and hear Joel and Micah rehearsing “I feel” statements with dinosaurs. It seems to me that the the love of dinosaurs is pretty much universal among children and so I put together a fake article:

A recent U.S. Department of Education study confirmed researcher's deepest fears about the inherent flaws in our Early Elementary Educational System.  Children are not receiving adequate training in paleontology, despite the numerous toys, gadgets and picture books.

"We still have children laboring under the misconception that the Tyrannosaurus Rex was a vicious carnivore when, in fact, he was more akin to a ginormous buzzard. Just check out the bones," explains a key paleontologist.  Critics point out that paleontologists should not be offering such silly comparisons and using words like "ginormous" and "bones" that reduce the scholarly nature of digging bones in the desert.

The lasting impact is immense.  In recent years, Japan and India have both led cutting edge fossil excavations.  China alone graduate twice as many paleontologists as the United States.  Skeptics say this is not surprising, given the fact that they have the largest population in the world.  Most experts, however, ignore data disaggregation and point to this as yet another industry that the United States is losing.  And the culprit?  Bad teachers.

A government spokeswoman and former Teach for America graduate Bruce Lystra explained that the larger issues are lack of teacher training.  "Better teachers.  That's what it comes down to.  We have held such low dinosaur standards for so many years that it is leading to ignorance."

Julia Henderson, a second year first grade teacher (It's her second year of teaching first grade.  She doesn't actually teaching children who are repeating first grade) mentions the pressure of meeting the state's paleontology requirements, "Most kids come in fascinated by dinosaurs, but I fear that the drill-and-kill method simply strips away this intrinsic motivation."  Bruce Lystra is doubtful of this.  "Do we have statistics proving that kids love dinosaurs? I'm not so sure.  I think Jurassic Park was sort-of the Challenger Moment of our paleontology perception. Instead of loving dinosaurs, kids grew afraid of them.  We need a safe environment where kids can fill out worksheets about dinosaurs and see that the animals are pretty safe . . . seeing as how they are dead."

Brad tells me that even the most progressive parents become behaviorists at some point. “We assert power on one another. For the sake of efficiency or for the sake of sanity we move into bribes or extortion. We tell children to do this and they'll get this and it's a big bribe. Or we tell them that if they fail to give us more of an effort, we'll take something away from them until they do.”

“I really think I'm beyond the whole behaviorism thing. I guess there are moments when I'll use it, but it's usually when I'm tired and overly assertive.”

“I don't think it looks like what people think. For example, we tell a child to learn this because some day they'll end up using it. Or fail to learn this and you'll be screwed. We treat education like an investment, but I'm not it is meant to be a commodity we invest.”

“So, what do you suggest instead?”

“I'm not sure. Maybe it has something to do with teaching them where they are at right now. I teach seniors in high school and they scoff at me when I talk about marriage and family, because they want to know when they will use it. So the challenge is to motivate them about the future by being relevant in the now.” It's not easy, either. Sometimes I have to step in and sometimes I have to assert control. Sometimes we push through something that is tedious. Motivation is a challenging mystery. The heart is deceitful. 
Who can understand it?

*      *      *
I want students to be prepared for the future, but I know that the best way to prepare them for the future is to prepare them for the ever-present now. I know that focusing on the whole person will help them to be prepared for a future career. I know that when I try too hard in motivation, I end up failing to motivate students. If I try to make it fun, I end up disappointed when kids are not amused. If I try to give them something in return for learning, students end up doing the least possible work for the highest possible reward. In other words, they become great consumers and crappy learners.

It all starts to feel a little backwards sometimes. But it tends to work. I notice this at a parent-teacher conference.

In a typical parent-teacher conferences, I interact as best as I can in Spanish.  It becomes a role that I play, an act that I put on based upon memorized lines, key words and body language.  My smile is thin and plastic, my energy pumped up by an edgy anxiety.  It's not that I am afraid of parents, but that I am, on some level, still the shy kid who sits on the bench at the school dance without ever really wanting to join in.

“Mr. Spencer, we need to talk.”  Ouch.  No one adds to that phrase, “about how wonderful you're doing.” I brace myself. If it is a “need” it is probably not good.

“My son says your class is fun,” he adds.

“I'm glad he likes it.”

“I want to know what you're doing in here.  Education is hard work.  We call it homework for a reason and classwork for a reason.”  He says it just like that, with thick italics on the word “work.”

I explain to him the first project of writing and article.  It becomes a mini-lesson on the research process.  He softens when he sees the research chart that his son filled out.  “You make him read print articles as well?” he asks.

“I want students to use multiple media,” I add.

He begins peppering me with questions about my use of critical thinking, whether students are held individually accountable in group work and which technological skills they have acquired.  He smiles when I tell him that my goal is not to teach a child how to use a computer, but to use a computer for thinking.

When he sees a few of his son's final projects, he gives a heavy sigh.  It's silent for awhile and then he starts laughing. It's not a simple chuckle, but a full-scale laugh.

Finally he explains, “I'm sorry, but when he said your class was fun I was thinking of video games and free time.  I'm glad that he finds challenging work fun. I mean, it seems like you're really making him think and thinking is fun.  He just doesn't seem to like school usually. And this work actually looks pretty hard.” It's an awkward compliment, but I feel affirmed.

I think back to the project and I'm surprised by the notion of fun. I planned the lesson thinking about what students needed. I thought about the research skills and the reading, the use of multimedia and the story-telling. I never asked myself, “What makes this fun?” I never offered a bribe – do this project and you'll get a grade. I never threatened with extortion – you'd better get it done or else I'm taking away the computers. I didn't play the entertainment game, either. Instead, I thought about keeping it challenging, allowing the students to define what is relevant and shifting toward the notion of discovery. In the process, this student had fun. Still, it's not always that easy.

*       *      *

“Mr. Spencer, I don't get it,” a girl says pointing to her screen. I feel conflicted about helping her, knowing that it might simply be a ploy to think less and have someone else do the problem-solving for her.

I briefly review the research chart and she says, “So, why do we have to find our answers Online?”

After reminding her of the need for research, she adds, “Why can't we just watch videos instead?”

I overhear a boy whisper, “This is boring,” to his friend and I'm crushed.

I mention this, because I sometimes get this false, rosy picture about my classroom.  I begin to believe that, since I focus on intrinsic motivation, kids automatically love my class.  I assume that since I made the paradigm shift toward higher level thinking, kids will embrace the challenge of deeper thinking.

The reality is that some kids will hate my class.  Some kids will find lesson to be boring.  Quite honestly, some lessons will be boring, because they are critical steps toward a more exciting project (in this case a documentary).  

Some children hate to work.  Perhaps they learned that work is a punishment that demands a reward or they are so addicted to amusement that they can't see anything deeper than entertainment value.  Every child is a story in progress and I walk into the plot without any prior knowledge of either the character or the setting, armed with only the slightest notion of theme.

Don't take it personally, John. But it is personal.  It is deeply personal.  I developed this lesson with my students in mind and the learning process is relational and right now there is a disconnect.  I failed to create a learning experience that would motivate them. So it is personal, but what is the best personal response?  Is it to lash out in anger? Is it to hide in defeat and self-protect?  Or is it to focus on the students and forge a new path instead? It's an Icarus moment, I guess.

So, we're on this marathon and now we're stuck at a road block and the hardest thing to admit is that the roadblock is my own creation.  I failed to remind our group why we're moving along this path in the first place. I assumed that students would want to move toward discovery and instead they feel trapped in a rigid lesson. I am tempted to provide a bribe – perhaps free time if they finish early. Or maybe a punishment. Anyone who fails to finish this part won't be able to work on the project at all.

Instead, I stop the lesson briefly and I tell a story about cooking and how there were parts that were boring (chopping up vegetables, for all its knife-wielding glory) and parts that required close attention to detail and parts that even got confusing. But in the end it worked.

A few students stare blankly, missing any notion of allegory or analogy, but we are now horizontal at least.  If nothing else, they see that I can relate to their frustration with research.  At this point, we discuss the research process. The answers are brisk and concise, but more of the students seem engaged.  I ask the following questions: How does it feel to do research?  (they discuss the sense of boredom and frustration) In what ways does frustration lead to learning? Why is it important to research?  Why shouldn't the teacher be the source of all knowledge?  Why is it important to base your opinions on fact?
How will solid research help you in this project?

We land on the notion of discovery, with students believing that they have discovered the need for discovery. We lose about ten minutes of class time, but we gain it back with students who are more engaged.  It's far from perfect.  A few unmotivated students drag their feet, but at least they are moving (albeit slowly).  Sometimes it's best to meander away from the lesson plan, to admit that the process is failing and to work with the students instead of against them in order to help them see the value of learning.

*      *      *
Micah tells Joel to look up at the moon.  The elder is taking a lesson from the younger, a quick reminder that the moon still matters.

“It was hiding behind the clouds, but now it's back,” Micah explains.

“It's a quarter-moon,” Joel adds.

“A quarter is when a number smaller than one and it means you chop one up into smaller pieces.”  It's not a bad description of fractions.  I'm guessing he won't need to understand the concept completely until he is in school.

“Daddy, is that the same moon as yesterday?”

“Yeah, it's the same. The moon is always there.”

“So, it's not a new moon?”

“Same moon every night.”

“Does it just lose part of itself and grow back?”

“No, it has to do with the light hitting it.  Part of the moon is hidden because it's dark.”  Joel probably
won't understand what I told him just as he doesn't completely understand fractions and, on some level, the sun really doesn't disappear every night.  But he loves to learn.  It's always relevant to him and he is unashamed about asking questions.

We never tell Joel, “This isn't important, because you won't use it when you are older.”  It's not about when he is older.  It's about now.  It's about learning how to learn.  Joel never asks me, “How will I use this in a job?”  Never.  Not once.  Joel never asks me, “What will I get for learning this?” What he “gets” is a chance to learn, a journey, a process, a dance.  Some days learning will be a meandering trip in the woods and other days it will be an epic that will require a dagger.  But if he ever pursues education, I want it to be the way one would pursue a love and not the way one would manage a portfolio.

Perhaps the saddest part about sending my children to school (and I will) is that learning will, at some point, become a commodity.  It will become a possession, an investment, a tangible good to be used in exchange for money.  If he's not careful, he'll get good grades to go to college and he'll go to college to get a good job and he'll never learn how to ask, “What is good?” because “good” and “goods” don't always intersect. For now I'm just happy with him asking "What is the moon and why is it disappearing every night?”  Keep staring out at the universe, kid, and some day you'll stumble on why we are here.

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