Understanding Motivation

Oct 24, 2012 by

I think one of the most important questions in education is how to motivate kids to learn and perform in school.  We spend a lot of time complaining about kid’s lack of motivation to do what we want, and a lot of money trying to find schemes, games or other things to induce or woo them into learning.  However, if you understand more about motivation and motivational theory, this problem becomes much easier to crack.

I am a huge fan of Rick LaVoie’s book, “The Motivation Breakthrough, 6 secrets to turning on the tuned out child”, and it’s helped me reframe how I look at students and understand how to help them engage in tasks, or how to set tasks that work with them, rather than against their base level interests.

Likewise, I urge you to take a look at the video below.  It’s an RSA Animate. The RSA, a British group very much like TED, dedicated to encouraging Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce- takes talks by fantastic speakers- this one is by Daniel Pink- and add drawing “animations/illustrations” to help highlight aspects of the talk.  The process of illustrating a talk is fascinating in and of itself, and always gives me ideas on how to illustrate points I’m making in presentations.  This talk about motivation is fascinating, and well worth your time- I urge you to give it a look.

Educon- Educators on a Mission

Feb 3, 2011 by

Every year since it started, I have attended Educon.  Educon, the only education conference held in an actual school, grew out of EduBloggerCon as a way to continue the conversations started there, and to make sure the conversations between educators about teaching and education had another place to be voiced and heard.  It’s a place where teachers, administrators,  parents and others in the education world can get together and have conversations about how to change and evolve education, how to improve the craft of teaching, and brainstorm solutions for some of the stickier problems everyone in these worlds face.

The Science Leadership Academy (SLA),  a Philadelphia special admission public school, is an example of what every school can be- student centered, inquiry-driven, and an amazing environment where learning and community come together.  On the Friday the conference was supposed to start, Philadelphia schools were closed due to snow.  Yet the students, who are an integral part of  running and planning the conference, took it upon themselves to start sending messages via Facebook and Twitter, and over a hundred students still came to school on a snow day, to make sure the visitors and guests would be able to see THEIR school in action, even under somewhat unusual circumstances.  You know a school is a special place for kids if they come there even on a snow day, where the hurdles of even getting to school are more challenging than normal.

But I’m not surprised by this.  Because at the first Educon, I was speaking to one of the teachers, Mr. Rochester, who spoke about the kids regularly coming to school early, and that the faculty would have to chase them out of school at 6pm when the building was being locked for the evening.  He said they couldn’t figure out why the kids wouldn’t leave.  I knew why from the moment I got there- the people who cared about the students, the students  who cared about their learning, and the electricity in the air of “How can we change the world today?” was palpable.  Of course kids would do this- school is the most exciting place to be- better than video games, better than just about anything.  School has become their place, their home, their club.  And while the fact every student has a laptop is nice, it’s the fact that this enhances their communication and collaboration that really makes a difference.  The tech is secondary to the people- the teachers and students who have a sense of school and community that transcends anything I had ever seen before.

SLA is a special school that totally changed my perspective on what school can be, and I’d give my right arm to get to be there as a student.  But it also sets a shining example of what schools can be, and makes me want to do whatever is necessary to help my school district emulate some of what SLA has.  I want to help inspire our teachers to want more, to care more, and to realize it’s not all about the external things, but it’s as much about who you are as a teacher and whether or not you are personally invested in your students and their success.

The teachers at SLA are excellent not only because of what they know, but moreover, because they care so much about their students.  They care about their own learning.  The faculty meets and works as a team, and they don;t leave a meeting until their is consensus.  Not everyone wins, but there’s a sense of setting a common agenda that everyone can live with and try, and knowing that if Plan A doesn’t work, they’ll go to Plan B just as willingly, without a sense of defeat, but just a sense of there may be a new and better way to tweek what’s happening.

It all starts with Inquiry.

I look at Differentiated Instruction as having many parts- Inquiry, project-based learning, personalized learning for students, and more- all of it together creating a learning atmosphere where students are valued and known as individuals, and are challenged to know themselves and push themselves, as much as be guided and mentored by the teachers.  SLA embodies this every day, so I know it’s not a myth, a silver unicorn, but it can be done.  Moreover, the change is not about tech (although it helps) or location- it’s largely one of attitude and a willingness to do things differently.  And that is free- all it takes is a belief that change is truly possible.

Places like SLA where the kids have a sense of place and ownership in their school don’t have to be rare gems- but it does take leadership, culture and support- a willingness to be different and do different.  And all of that starts inside each individual.  Places like SLA just set an example and let you know it’s not a utopian dream.

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Encouraging Learning

Jan 25, 2011 by

Seth Godin has a great blog post about ways we’ve classically looked at trying to help others do things, big and small. The key part I think all educators and parents should pay attention to is this:

The third method, the one that I prefer, is to open the door. Give people a platform, not a ceiling. Set expectations, not to manipulate but to encourage. And then get out of the way, helping when asked but not yelling from the back of the bus.

When people learn to embrace achievement, they get hooked on it. Take a look at the incredible achievements the alumni of some organizations achieve after they move on. When adults (and kids) see the power of self-direction and realize the benefits of mutual support, they tend to seek it out over and over again.

With differentiated instruction and personal learning, part of what’s asked is for teachers to set expectations, encourage, and get out of the way. Parents need to take this same attitude with grades and homework. Set expectations, guide and assist when needed, but basically get out of the way and let the child do it. Too often we fall into the trap that goading or nagging will work. Too often we take for granted that if giving the opportunity, the student just might make a good and reasoned decision. While I’ll be the first to admit kids don’t always have the experience or the frontal lobes to make the best judgments about what’s good for them now or in the future, if you lay out the case for them and provide all the facts and context, they can make surprisingly good decisions.

We need to develop a greater sense of trust in our students, in our colleagues, and in ourselves to do the right thing, most of the time. Too often I see people making plans, rules, policies and the like for the fringe operators, the people who will go out of their way to test limits or circumvent the system. Those people are never going to go away. They will always be there. The parameters need to be set for the bulk of people trying to do the right thing, and then deal with the outliers as outliers, as one-offs, as making human mistakes or bad decisions like we all do. Because some folks can’t be trusted, doesn’t mean we should all live in a police state. Instead, we have to set the expectation of trust and community, and if we do, the vast majority will follow.

Asserting authority should only have to be used when necessary. If you have a true learning community, it should be a trusting community as well, and you earn the respect and authority you have, as a teacher, parent or student. And this means not having to use your power or assert it very often, because it’s taken as a given, as a parameter of the interaction and group. This requires confidence in your position within the community as well, and that it will not be constantly challenged.

And I think this is really where many of us, including myself, fall short from time to time. You need to be confident and secure in your knowledge, your contributions and your place in a group in order to thrive. If you find yourself needing to assert your power and authority frequently, maybe you need to look at how secure you feel in your position, and whether or not the challenge you feel is internal or external. Sometimes it may be your lack of confidence that exacerbates the challenges to your authority, not a need for more and stricter rules.

Just something to think about.