Motivation beyond Maslow

If we want our student’s to be come lifelong learners, then they need to enjoy learning. Yet the reality is that there are many students who are anything but motivated learners.  For these students, the only good part about school is that it’s a place to meet their friends. The lessons – the education part of school – is endured.   How likely is it that these students will become lifelong learners?

Lifelong learning implies that education will continue outside the school,  but at present school is still regarded as THE place to learn.  For those students who don’t like school, authorities have decreed they should stay at school until at least sixteen in the futile expectation that they might learn something during their compulsory school attendance other than how to survive in a system that they don’t want any part of.  This is despite the fact that in most western countries the education  system is flexible  enough to allow re-entry at a later date.  There seems to rather confused message here – “We are teaching you become a lifelong learner, and school might be  your only chance to learn that. We’re not convinced you have learned enough yet to become a  lifelong learner, so keep coming back each week for more of what you don’t like.”  It would be surprising  if this formula for creating a lifelong learner didn’t fail.

How do we provide a school environment that motivates these disengaged students to learn? Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t help much in a typical school situation where basic needs are hopefully already met. What’s needed is a more focused understanding of motivation that can be applied to the classroom environment.

Here’s a neat little video that summarizes our present understanding of motivation.

In a nutshell, people are motivated by:-

1. choice – being able to choose what to do, and when to do it
2. desire for mastery – either a physical skill or a knowledge area
3. a desire to contribute – a sense of purpose

Classroom apathy is often a legitimate response to being told what to learn, when to learn it, and how much to learn. Giving students more choice, the first item on the list, is likely to be a significant trend in modern classrooms, as more teachers experiment with giving students more control over their learning.    Alfie Kohn in his excellent article “How to Create NonReaders“,  goes from techniques that fail to motivate readers (such as setting targets to meet, or selecting what will be read, and when) to suggest more successful strategies. His suggestions directly tackle practical ways to give students choices about their learning that have general application beyond reading.

Constructivist teaching probably works  through the appeal of mastery, the second item on the list.  Effective constructivist teaching presents students with problems to be solved. Once students “buy” into the problem, students become motivated to solve the it. Getting students to buy the problem is often not difficult – we seem to be biologically programmed to want complete partially presented information – anything from watching/ reading  a “who-done-it”, finding the m_ _ _ _ing letters in a word, or figuring out which word is the end last word in this _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” .  Cognitive scientists suspect the pleasure that we get from activities such as crosswords, sudoko or working on and solving problems may be due to the release of endorphins when we find the solution.  Clearly this will only kick in if the problems are appropriate to the student’s ability. Student’s quickly opt out if they don’t believe they can solve the problem, and are deprived of the satisfaction of finding the answer themselves if the answer is supplied for them, or is not challenging enough.

Many of the disengaged students do not have the opportunity for mastering a particular topic. They frequently start a learning topic without the necessary prerequisite knowledge (because they didn’t master earlier material), and are then obliged to move on to the next topic to repeat another cycle of failure.  Free online coaching via sites such as  Khan Academy and Sophia might make it possible for these students to fill in the gaps in their knowledge so that learning can give them a feeling of accomplishment instead of their current experiences of frustration and failure.

For item three – contribution and purpose – perhaps  tasks which involve getting students to help each other learn, or setting challenges for other students (that they already can do), or collaborating on a joint project could hook in to this motivator.

The bottom line is that if we want students to be engaged, and lifelong learners, then maintaining student motivation to learn needs be a basic skill in our arsenal of teaching skills.

Finally, there’s a brilliant little 58 page booklet – “How To Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself)” available at the blog of poet, coach,pyschologist and counseller, Mark McGuiness.  I guarantee you’ll find some suggestions there that you can use in the classroom and plenty of food for thought.

Does anyone have any suggestions or experience to share?

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