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Classroom Practice - Create waves of learning

The key to motivation lies in breaking down large tasks and mastering the basics before moving on to higher-level activities

The key to motivation lies in breaking down large tasks and mastering the basics before moving on to higher-level activities

If good teaching rests somewhere between a quantifiable science and an idiosyncratic art, then the strategies that we use to motivate students reside more at the arty end of the spectrum.

Of course, some students are naturally motivated, but what can you do if they are not? Perhaps some teachers just have "it", a natural charisma that makes their subject more appealing. Yet surely there are strategies that mere mortals can learn.

It is currently popular to view issues of student psychology through the concept developed by Carol Dweck of growth versus fixed mindsets. Yet when it comes to motivation this can only ever be part of the story. Imagine you gave me a treatise on politics written in Russian, a language of which I know nothing. Even if I believe that my ability to read Russian is not fixed and innate and can be improved (the bedrock of the growth mindset philosophy), I may still find it hard to get started. I may still not be motivated to learn. So what is the solution?

At the deep end

Many people believe that motivation comes from providing the right "hook" to draw students into a subject. In his influential TED talk, maths teacher Dan Meyer discusses a classic textbook question about a water tank. He talks about how dull the textbook presentation of the task is. Instead, he suggests showing a video of a real water tank and challenging the students to pose their own questions. Meyer's maxim is "less helpful".

Unfortunately, such an argument potentially falls foul of cognitive load theory, which relates to under- or overloading one's working memory during complex learning activities. As a 2006 article in Educational Psychologist explains: "Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing. evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century. consistently indicate[s] that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process."

There is also another potential problem with the motivating "hook". In his 2009 book Why Don't Students Like School?, Professor Daniel Willingham advises us to think carefully about attention-grabbers. He tells the story of his daughter, who saw a science experiment and thought it was really cool but then couldn't remember what it was attempting to demonstrate. Given that there is a limit to how much we can pay attention to at any one time, attention-grabbers risk distracting students from what we want them to learn. I would also add that if we constantly seek entertaining angles, then we also risk producing capricious learners who value only work that is sufficiently entertaining. This would be a poor life lesson.

Not so cryptic

So has anything been proven to increase student motivation but also maintain a clear focus on learning? A strong contender has to be Direct Instruction (DI) as practised in Project Follow Through, an educational experiment conducted from the 1970s until 1995. DI in this instance broke down tasks and restricted students from progressing to higher-level activities until they had mastered lower-level ones.

According to US educationalist Doug Carnine, "researchers noted that DI students performed well not only on measures of basic skills but also in more advanced skills such as reading comprehension and maths problem- solving". He also said that DI students' scores were quite high in the affective domain, which suggested that "building academic competence promotes self-esteem not vice versa".

In other words, getting better at something is motivating. For instance, I have never been a fan of cryptic crosswords yet I know people who are. I happen to be useless at them whereas my friends are highly able. This is no coincidence. What real-life use is there to solving cryptic crosswords? None. The motivation is driven purely by the satisfaction obtained from becoming successful at a complex cognitive task. This is also what we see in highly motivated students: competence breeds motivation, which in turn breeds further competence.

If we want motivated students, then we should use the DI example to inspire us: break down learning into small, manageable chunks - at least early in the journey, when students don't know much. This will allow them to achieve small successes quickly, which will in turn motivate them. In this approach, motivation and good teaching are two sides of the same coin.

Greg Ashman is a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia

In short

  • There is little in the way of training on how teachers can motivate students.
  • Tactics such as using a "hook" have proved popular but their effectiveness is limited.
  • Instead, break down a task into small parts and hold students back from higher-level activities until they have mastered the basics.
  • This helps a student to feel accomplishment - a major driver in motivation.
    • References

Dweck, C (2007) Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential (Robinson).

Meyer, D (2010) "Math class needs a makeover" (TED talk).

Kirschner, PA, Sweller, J, Clark, RE (2006) "Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching", Educational Psychologist, 412: 75-86.

Willingham, D (2009) Why Don't Students Like School?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (Wiley).

Carnine, D (2000) Why education experts resist effective practices (and what it would take to make education more like medicine) (Thomas B Fordham Foundation).

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