Sunday, November 8, 2009

Can We Help a Student Want to Learn?

This is something I have been pondering for some years. I remember having a conversation with Linda Kavelin-Popov, founder of Virtues Project International, a few years back. We were talking about motivation, and she said, "We cannot motivate people to do the right thing; we can only inspire them to do the right thing." Now I realize that sounds somewhat "airy ferry" or new age, but it's changed how I look at what I can do with students rightly or wrongly. Sergiovanni (2005: 10-11) says that we need to move away from the theory that what gets done gets rewarded (extrinsic motivation) to a better strategy, of what is rewarding gets done even if no one is looking (intrinsic motivation). I now look at my role as a teacher and administrator as one that needs to inspire learning by living out my passion for lifelong learning. I'm one of those guys who believes that I need to encourage the growth and development of natural virtue, or character strengths according to Seligman & Peterson, in students (2004) that becomes the driving force of what they do and how they live.

It's been awhile since I have been active in the classroom, but I hear teachers often say that students seem so apathetic and uninterested in learning or life for that matter. Motivating a child with extrinsic rewards, as Dan Pink states in his TedTalk (2009) presentation, often has a negative and opposite result. I tend to agree with Pink.

Motivation becomes almost like a pull or push action, especially if we are dangling the candy in front of the student as if we are trying to bribe them to follow. Pretty soon the candy loses its appeal and we're looking for bigger candy to lure the student into learning. We've seen this for years in the classrooms with reward systems. I must confess, in my early years of teaching, I bought into the rewards thing. I bought this treasure box and it was filled with coins and tokens. Every time a student did something right or worked hard I gave them a token or coin. At the end of the month, they could turn in their coins and purchases prizes like pencils, books, stickers, and more. But that lasted six months and the students were bored with it. Meanwhile, I was exhausted from trying to administer it. In the end, I realized that the students were not learning or behaving because it was a good thing or for its intrinsic value or merit, but because I was bribing them.

This is why I lean more to the inspiration model. Motivation, even intrinsic, has to have a cause. At the root of intrinsic motivation is a value system that is based upon natural virtue and character strengths. If I am in a dangerous situation, I am motivated to flee to safety because of the value I place on my life, because I care (virtue) about me. When I sit in class and apply myself or am intrinsically motivated to learn, it is because I value learning and knowledge, because I am a person striving for excellence (virtue) in my life. Motivation is the action and relies on a cause. Motivation sometimes is short lived though. How many times have we heard a stirring speech or speaker, and people say, "Wow! That was motivating." But they go back to the normal lives and nothing changes permanently, it may for a short while. That's because at the core nothing changed.

As an educator, I can affirm a student in their character strengths so they flourish and grow more love, joy, kindness, understanding, care, determination, responsibility, courage, excellence, assertiveness, trust, and more virtues. When a student’s feels good about themselves as a person, and believes that they possess these qualities even in a small way, they live out these qualities. Instead of being pushed or pulled into learning, I inspire them to be what they can be with my words of affirmation and encouragement. My warm friendly interactions create a safe and caring learning environment where they can feel motivated to learn. Yet after all this, I understand that students (Arthur: 29) may possess the same virtues as each other, but their motivation may vary in strength or output because of their will.

All I can do is try to help a student want to learn. I can encourage. I can be an example. But in the end, the student must want to learn for themselves. I can only hope I have encouraged them so they want to learn. This is why this subject is no simple matter and will be debated for a long time. But they are my thoughts and observations.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: leading and learning together in schools. San Fransico: Jossey-Bass.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Peterson, C. (2004). Character strengths and virtues. Oxford University Press, USA.

TedTalk. (Producer). (2009). Dan pink on the surprising science of motivation [Web]. Retrieved from

Arthur, J. (2003). Education with character: the moral economy od schooling. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
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