Thoughts about Motivation

As I was running this morning I was thinking about this word and what this actually means for our students. I have often heard in the hallways and discussions with teachers that students aren’t motivated to learn. I will even admit that I have said this on numerous occasions. But the reality about motivation is, it really isn’t determined by others but by the individual. I love to run (I know I tell everyone I meet) and so that in itself motivates me but when I tell others how easy it is to do, I get yeah I’m not doing that. In fact, running is a great example because I often hear it just isn’t enjoyable to me and I don’t really understand why you love it so much. For me, it is very easy to get motivated about a run. In fact, it is what I use instead of doing things that I know I need to do, like report cards or finishing my book. Running allows me to think, it allows me to process and it controls my ADHD but running isn’t for everyone. So why do we as teachers think that motivation for learning works the same for our students as it does for us?

As most of you know my daughter and myself have ADHD. It has been interesting to read about this and how our brains function and work in comparison to normal brains. Both of us have a hard time staying motivated for long extended times (unless we are hyper-focusing, which is quite a superpower) because of the dopamine production in our brains. I love following this channel if you want to learn more about ADHD.

Basically, what happens is that at times both my daughter and I really want to buy in and do the work but slowly our motivation starts to lag because well we are creating the same dopamine and our attention and motivation strays to something way more engaging. 

The reality is though not every child we teach or person in the world has ADHD motivation sort of works the same way. We as a human race are motivated by the things that we value and often think that others around us should be motivated by the same measures. I am guilty of this. My whole life school has been something that I sort of did, I got by and I did the work (my mother hated my work ethic) but then when teachers college came I was highly motivated because I finally found something that I love and wanted to do, same with my masters and other things. I put tons of effort into being better and getting better because it is something that I am highly interested in learning and doing. But this isn’t true for others around me and the same is true for our students. 

Motivation is about creating experiences for students so that their brains create those dopamine patterns and in the end even create dopamine in anticipation. So how do we do this? 

A couple of days ago I met a student who loved to do cartwheels and constantly move around. In fact, I don’t think I ever once say him sitting or doing work because he was always moving. I asked if he wanted to write a book. At first he said, “meh” but when I told him that I didn’t know how to do a cartwheel and needed help being taught his eyes perked up. In the end, he ended up writing me an ebook about doing a cartwheel and created about 5 sentences to go with this. 

Now I mention this story because for this particular child work is hard and writing even more so. I know for myself it has been a struggle to motivate myself to write. Even this blog takes effort and my brain wants to wander and do other things but because I am writing about something that I love and am interested in I can sustain it a little more. For this child the moment that I added in his interests and made him the expert he was able to buy in and finish. Now we also had breaks but instead of wandering he came back ready to write and finish his book. This is the same for any subject. We know that the more we incorporate student identities and knowledge into a task the more motivating it is. This doesn’t mean we use “real world” problems because often those problems are only real to the person who designed them. This means that we use things that students want to talk about and are interested in, like cartwheels. It also can be something new and flashy, like 3D printing, or video games. Or it can be simply a problem a student wants to solve from ther experience. The point is creating tasks that are motivating depends on the individual and also the situation. 

Now I know this can be hard especially when we have a lot of students and we as adults have a lot of other things to think about but we if we are thinking about reaching all of our students then teaching really isn’t about making life easier for us but more about changing our practice to serve those we have in our classroom. There are some great ways to do this though that can make our life easier. 

  1. Think about the task and what the students can handle and cannot. In some instances breaking it up into smaller tasks and with closer due dates can increase motivation
  2. Ensure that identities and students ideas are always centred in the classroom. This can be done through discussions, surveys, creation of teaching tools, even in our assessments. This helps because even if one or two tasks aren’t as motivating because of interests students know that their voice is heard in other areas and they can talk to you or you will notice them. This also allows you to change your assignments easier because you get to know your students a lot better. 
  3. Remember that planning and reasoning about tasks is not something that naturally happens, even for atypical brains. Learning to organize and plan and sort is a skill that needs to be taught. Yes it is time out of our “curriculum” but it is also time well spent. 
  4. There has to be buy in from the student. One of the most simplest ways is giving students choice and this doesn’t mean the 9 things that I choose for them but true choice in how they best learn and best display their learning. Sure we have curriculum and things that need to be taught but how I show you that learning should be up to the student. 

Here is another of the Brain videos that can help.

I hope that this sparks some thoughts and would love to hear your thoughts as well. Leave a comment below or tag me in a Twitter conversation.

Author: MrSoClassroom

I am a grade school Teacher, promoting creativity and exploration in all of my students. My classroom is always in a state of Inquiry.

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