Friday, September 21, 2007

Student Motivation

In order to influence motivation, it is important to first understand motivation. Motivating individuals is impossible. Everyone is motivated. The person who sits in a recliner doing nothing but watching television is motivated—motivated to lounge. If he wasn’t, he would be doing something else, and that would be his motivation. No activity can ever commence without the first necessary ingredient called motivation.

We can, however, discuss types of motivation: positive motivation and negative motivation. Positive motivation would involve the desire to do something beneficial, constructive, to produce, to make something or someone better, to grow, to learn. This is what we hope each of our students possesses, but some are motivated to passively lounge in their desks, albeit they are less comfortable than a recliner.

It is these La-Z-Boys (and Girls) who need to have their motivation influenced if not redefined. The man will not turn off the Boob Tube and get out of his easy chair unless he believes that there is something better for him. People will always do what they would rather do than not do! This is the genesis of their particular motivation.

Now, most people’s motivation resides in them wanting to feel good, whether it be physically, emotionally, spiritually, mathematically, or mentally. If any one of these areas goes unfulfilled, we are cast into a state of panic, frustration, turmoil, and great stress. We will often do anything, regardless of how irrational it harmful it might be. This is what we see in the rebellious math student who demonstrates recalcitrance in learning to solve for x, and who exhibits obstreperous, if not disrespectful, conduct in class. He is injuring his opportunity to learn and master a new skill that might promulgate him into greater things for the sake of “saving face” or “sticking it to the man.”

To motivate students, we must convince them that changing their behavior will help gratify some specific need or desire. That the benefits of their actions will outweigh the price they will have to pay for them. For me an my students, I can dangle the carrot of better colleges, better jobs, the joy of understanding the natural, beautiful, holistic concepts of mathematics that intricately weave all of our existences together . . .

My students are motivated to get the grade. I want them to be motivated to actually learn and retain. How can I inspire them to reshape their entire paradigm of what school is all about, that it is more than just jumping through hoops or “playing the game?”

This cannot happen by me telling them what they “need,” “should,” or “must” do. Threats, force, and coercion only inspire short-term behavior that is altered only for the temporary convenience of getting you off their back. This reminds me of one of those funny quotes: “The beatings will continue until moral improves.” Ha! I wish. This would eventually even force a masochist into depression and rebellion.

This is why I try to inspire positive motivation innocuously. Creating a healthy, safe, learning environment, where questions are encouraged, mistakes are treated as just part of the learning process, where process is valued as much as the product, tolerating healthy off-topic discussion . . . These are all things that send a message to students that you care and that you are dedicated to helping them fulfill their own potential. We must “pull” them to where we want them be so that they will want to stay. “Pushing” them only makes you the teacher exhausted and the students bruised (as in egos).

This process is slower, but has more permanent and lasting value. If we can make sure that we are creating an environment where their emotional, mental, physical, mathematical, and even spiritual (Bible Lit Class) needs are met, only then can real learning take place. It is a fact that the cerebral cortex cannot function if the lower, more-animalistic, brain structures are not placated. Reptiles cannot learn to do algebra!

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