Motivation in the Classroom

Children locked into classroom discussion are no different than adults locked into boring, irrelevant meetings. If you do not understand how something relates to your goals, you will not care about that thing. If an adult cannot see the relevance of the material covered in a meeting, and has no desire to score political points, he will tune out or drop out. If a child does not understand how knowing the elements of the periodic table will help to address the concerns of his life, and he is not particularly interested in pleasing the teacher, he will do the same.

Because we do not want our children to be motivated solely by a desire to please the teacher, what we need to address is how to make the content of the curriculum fit into the concerns of the child. Sometimes, this is easy. The child who wants to design a roof for the family doghouse will gladly sit through a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem if he understands that the lesson will teach him how to calculate the dimensions of the roof he needs. If a piece of content addresses a particular concern of a student, or even a general area of interest, that student will not tune it out.

Most children, as they work through their years of school do, in fact, find areas of study they genuinely enjoy. But these areas are different for different people. The general problem of matching individual interests to fixed curricula is one that is impossible to solve. People obviously have different backgrounds, beliefs, and goals. What is relevant for one will not be relevant to another. Of course, we can force something to be relevant to students--we can put it on the test. But this only makes it have the appearance of significance, it does not make it interesting.

Some children decide not to play the game this system offers. Instead, they continue to search for ways in which what is taught makes sense in their day-to-day lives, becoming frustrated as they realize that much of what is covered is irrelevant to them. If children are unwilling to believe that their own questions do not matter, then they can easily conclude that it is the material covered in class that does not matter.

What is left, then, if the content has no intrinsic value to a student? Any teacher knows the answer to this question. Tests. Grades. When students don't care about what they are learning, tests and grades force them to learn what they don't care about knowing. Of course, students can win this game in the long run by instantly forgetting the material they crammed into their heads the night before the test. Unfortunately, this happens nearly every time. What is the point of a system that teaches students to temporarily memorize facts? The only facts that stay are the ones we were forced to memorize again and again, and those we were not forced to memorize at all but that we learned because we truly needed to know them, because we were motivated to know them. Motivation can be induced artificially, but its effects then are temporary. There is no substitute for the real thing.

There are ways to design curricula so that the learners intrinsic motivation makes them want to learn. Here are three efforts headed by Roger Schank based on the principles outlined in this book.

New Curricula  Take a look at the new curricula now available (Sept 2008) that Roger Schank and the not-for-profit Engines for Education team designed for high school. 
Grandparent Games  If you have small children in your family or world, take a look at Roger Schank's new site designed to teach little kids to read, do math, and see the world interactivey. Not only is the site built in an engaging way that makes learning fun, it allows other members of your family to interact with your child over the web!
Corporate Training  What we say in this hyperbook about education is true of corporate training as well. Take a look at the work of our for-profit arm, Socratic Arts, and how corporate training can be improved.


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