Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Motivation Made of?

So, there it is. I ask a big question that many out there are asking as well.  I kind of have a clue on this one. Maybe a tiny clue, but a clue, nonetheless.  Unlike other topics on Twitter where I just say, "Whoah, I didn't know about that glitzy new tool," the business of student engagement and motivation is very interesting to me and I actually know a tiny bit about it!
I run my classroom like a lab, ( not in the white coat, sterile sense, don't worry!) making notes as to what happens when I make small changes. I have to be careful, though, not to assume that I have caused change with my actions. Correlation is not causation.  In any case, the daily reflection helps me transform my classroom into a place where 5 year olds can build the internal self talk and belief : "Yes, I can do it!"
This year, my big focus: student autonomy. No, this does not mean that students run the show (although, if you asked them to tell you the way the classroom "works" they could undoubtedly tell you), but the students are members of a community that thrives and blossoms as a result of their active engagement. Every day each student has a job, each group has a leader that rotates, and students discuss and practice how they will become responsible for themselves as learners. At the end of the day, instead of being rated on their behavior by the teacher, they rate themselves. They ask themselves the questions:  "How did I succeed in doing my work, cooperating with peers and the teacher, and being safe with my body"? They answer these questions individually and share the information with their parents.
When I hear a comment like, "I'm bored," which, thank goodness, I don't hear too often, we take a  moment to talk about how we have to learn certain "material" at school, but it's up to us together to make the journey exciting and memorable. I evaluate my practice when I hear these words, and I examine what is happening in that child's head/body/life that could perhaps interfere with engagement. Am I being irrelevant? Do they not identify with or care about what I am teaching? We live in a world of constant commotion and attention- demanding distractions so it's no wonder that kids seek entertainment in the classroom. With tv's blazing and computers running 24/7, do kids also imitate adults who may be constantly seeking stimulation? Are "we", the adults, able to model a less distracted learning scenario?
As teachers and administrators hold external rewards over the heads of innocent children, and not so innocent adults, I wonder if they have read the research about motivation, about efficacy, and the power of a mindset. If the practices in our schools revolve around giving out medals at an awards ceremony when kids  are "Advanced" or "Proficient", then we will surely lose those children who haven't developed the powerful belief, "Yes, I can." Is it an 8 year old's fault that his name isn't posted up on that wall or that he hasn't received a shiny new medallion? Does watching his friend receive all the glory inspire him to work  harder next time? Or does he shrink down in his chair, dreading the next benchmark test, followed by the next "humiliation" assembly where he will be excluded from a photo of his teachers and their "prides and joys."
I fear that our system is set up to sabotage the very engagement and motivation that will lead us out of this dismal achievement gap situation. We must constantly reflect on our practices and ensure that everything we do gives all kids the message that they can and will be successful.  Our mindsets are revealed in not just what we say, but in "how" and "what" we do each day.

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