Why Motivation Matters
The Elusive Ingredient
I taught my students how to conjugate verbs the other day. Or rather, I tried to.
It was tough getting the lesson started, because several students were late from their math class. When I went out into the hall to hurry them up, I got 'lip' from a few who were more interested in socializing at their lockers than learning language usage. And that's what motivation is about. We could also bring the idea of 'incentive' into the picture. After all, the kids were motivated to remain in the hall, but if there had been an incentive to move faster, they might have foregone their personal motivations at that moment.
But there is no incentive. They know that, in a practical sense, I can do nothing to get them to do what they don't want to do. School discipline these days involves trying to talk kids into doing what is in their best interests. But there's no 'big stick' backing anything up. (I just love quoting Teddy Roosevelt!)
Most experts in child psychology lecture us on the detriments of enticing kids through fear. I'm not sure those experts know what they're talking about. A healthy dose of fear might give middle schoolers the incentive to get busy doing what they're supposed to do.
Consequences seem to have gone out the window, and I blame administrators, who have gone off the deep end in kowtowing to parents who would rather coddle their kids than lay expectations on them.
In my classroom this year, I can name at least 5 kids who seem not to care about their studies but who also have fooled their parents into thinking that they do. If my principal would, just one time, hold a kid accountable in front of his parent, and let the parent know that it's unacceptable for this kid to be messing around constantly, life would get a lot better for everyone else in the class. But that doesn't happen. School principals are the newest politicians in our culture: they behave as if parents hold the key to whether or not they keep their job. As such, they throw platitudes at everyone, as if they are courting votes in an election.
Once I got my lesson started, I had to deal with kids who would rather doodle than learn, make off-task comments than participate, and play (secretly) on their tablet than participate. And sometimes, it's just easier to let the unmotivated ones do those things so the rest of my students can get their education.
Try to imagine, however, if all my students were motivated to do well in school. If they knew that participating would enhance their ability to learn. If they cared whether they learned because that would have a bearing on how they tested on the topic. If they moved heaven and earth to make every day a good experience because they know they need to for their future.
It's not a pipe dream. But it would take a shift in the education paradigm. Instead of placing the entire onus on teachers, most of the responsibility to learn would be placed on students. And how do we do that? We make it worth their while. We offer motivation through the incentive to do well. We make their test results matter to them. We make teachers more important in a school than principals. And we remove the kow-towing to parents that interferes with a teacher's ability to implement expectations in her classroom.