Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Motivation

An ironic title; as I write this, I am delaying preparation for a science lab, which entails typing up directions and getting all materials together (I did make sure that we had all the rquired materials at least; just need to assemble them in one place). I am not quite MOTIVATED to get that done, but I guarantee it will be done by the time we start the lab. This tends to be how I operate; I have lots of tasks to get done, and I work steadily. I have one task to get done, and I procrastinate. Everything gets done, but sometimes it causes undue stress.

Motivation is, I believe, the deciding factor in success (along with the ability to read). After 12 years of teaching, one would think that I might be closer to figuring out how to motivate every student, but that is simply not the case. There isn't a magic button you can push; what might motivate a student one day might do nothing for them the next.

As a nation, we are expecting less of our kids academically (and socially, and as a family member, but that's a whole other blog), so they produce less work, more of which is of low quality (see the rise in remedial classesin college for clear evidence of this; students can't write at a college level when they finish high school, and their math skills are equally lacking).  Do our lowered expectations contribute so much to this lack of motivation?

Perhaps it is the reward-based structure we are setting up; do X and I will give you Y. I know a parent who told her child that if she scored a goal in soccer she would take her out for ice cream...twice. Isn't the goal enough? Isn't supporting your team and contributing to the win a reward? I have in the past also known parents who shell out big money to their kids for grades, as in the hundreds of dollars per report card for kids as young as ten. This diminishes the value of money for them, nevermind the value of working hard for its own sake. Are extrinsic rewards lowering motivation?

What about laziness? As some kids naturally lazy? In The Myth of Laziness, the author writes,

"Almost no one is actually lazy, says Dr. Mel Levine, author of the #1 national bestseller A Mind at a Time. Low productivity -- whether in school or on the job -- is almost always caused by a genuine problem, a neuro-developmental dysfunction. Despite this, untold numbers of people have been stigmatized by unfair accusations of laziness, many of them adults who still carry emotional scars from their school days."

Similarly, in Boys Adrift,

"Dr. Leonard Sax delves into the scientific literature and draws on more than twenty years of clinical experience to explain why boys and young men are failing in school and disengaged at home. He shows how social, cultural, and biological factors have created an environment that is literally toxic to boys. He also presents practical solutions, sharing strategies which educators have found effective in re-engaging these boys at school, as well as handy tips for parents about everything from homework, to videogames, to medication."

Both of these books make profound cases for the biological nature of unmotivated students, specifically boys. If a student is hardwired to be unmotivated, then there is no one answer; maybe they need more time to outgrow the lack of motivation, maybe it is allowing them to choose their own path, follow their instincts and completely guide their own schooling. As an adult, I can look back at my own lackluster schooling career as a bored, unmotivated gifted student and see all of the opportunities I could have created for myself (study abroad, internships, etc), but I was so focused on the NOW that the future was hard to envision.

I don't have any answers. Every time I think about motivation I come away with more questions than answers, but I think the persistence in seeking strategies that work, whether for one hour, one day or one week is the key. There isn't a quick fix, otherwise someone would have bottled it and sold it to every school district, homeschooler and unschooler in the nation; anyone who believes differently is selling snake oil. Persistence/time = success with the unmotivated student. Math I can live with...

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