Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Motivation, Part 5

The following is the 5th (possibly final) part of a series of essays on student motivation by Lisa VanDamme. You can find all of them on her Pedagogically Correct blog.

Last time, I explained that in order for a teacher to properly motivate his students, he must really know the purpose of teaching his subject, and that purpose must set the standard for selection of the subject's content. Let me now add that the content selected must also be hierarchically appropriate if the purpose is to be achievable.

In a literature course, for example, the works selected for a given group of students must contain characters and themes to which they can relate. They must contain abstract material that the students are capable of grasping and can connect to their own lives. I once gave a workshop on hierarchy in education to the Maryland Homeschoolers' Association. In the discussion, I threw out, as a contrived example of the violation of hierarchy, the absurdity of reading Tom Sawyer to your toddler in the name of getting a jump on the classics. A parent approached me after the talk, thanked me for it, and confessed, his head low, that he had been reading none other than Tom Sawyer to his 2 and 5-year-olds, with what he had regarded as inexplicably disastrous results. It is not inexplicable-the works introduced to a child must not just be meaningful, they must be meaningful to him.

The value of the subject must also set the standard for the method of the course. Every exercise must be purposeful; it must be carefully selected to further the ultimate goal of the course. The method by which we achieve the purpose in literature is to have daily discussions of the reading, and daily writing assignments, that are integrated around the central value of the work-discussions that help the students to gain an understanding of the plot, of the characterization, and of the theme, so that they gain, over time, a deep appreciation for the story and for its meaning.

Key to this method must also be active integration of the material to the rest of the child's knowledge, including his knowledge of other subjects and the experiences of his life. He must not view the knowledge he gains as isolated, free-floating items of information, but as part of a whole, connected body of knowledge that he is working to master because of the guidance it will offer him in the pursuit of a fulfilled, happy life. Each subject has profound value-real, practical, selfish value-and the teacher must make a purpose of conveying this fact through connections to real life.

The final and most important principle of motivation is that the teacher must identify, explicitly and abstractly, the value of the subject to the students' lives. He must explain, as an important and recurring theme through every course, why the student is learning this, and what is the benefit to him. Motivation is fundamentally cognitive; it is knowledge itself - knowledge of the value of the material he is learning.

Andrew Lewis once gave a presentation to the VanDamme Academy parents about his method of teaching history. He said that the subject of history, as taught by most history teachers, answers five questions: Who?, What?, When?, Where? , and How? He then explained that a proper history course absolutely must answer two more questions: Why? , and the one most relevant to my purpose here, So what? This question must be answered not just in history, but in every subject.

The basic principles of motivation are really quite simple: the teacher must identify the value of his course, design the curriculum accordingly, and name the value explicitly. If he does this properly, he can dispose of the pizzas, gold stars, and rulers, and enjoy the radiantly eager response of children who really grasp what they are learning and why.

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