We must ask the right questions in order to understand students’ motivation and interest in learning
Two phone calls in two days. The first: “What do I do with an unmotivated 14-year-old? His laziness is driving me to frustration.” The second: “Why won’t students in my Year 8 class show initiative? Why are they are so passive and disinterested?”
The callers sought advice around discipline, finding the keys to unlock motivation and how to engender a sense of interest and commitment from the students they teach. Alas, I let the callers down. I provided the ‘reverse answer’.
“Young teenagers are so unmotivated,” I was told. “They just need constant stimulus. I cannot compete with the instant rewards of Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.”
In essence, the callers sought affirmation. For me, however, the question was poorly framed. Referencing, or framing, is essential to problem solving. Consider the following.
It is illegal for a child to stay at home without reason during the school term.
Do students have choice over what is taught or how? Generally not.
Should a person be intrinsically interested in learning? Possibly, but…who is doing the teaching and how?
As I thought the callers’ questions were poorly framed, I offered the reverse answer, “Why should a student in your class be motivated?”
My response was met with silence. Had I betrayed my status as an ‘adviser’?
Students are compelled to attend school. They have no real choice – no discretion over how they will be taught or treated, no capacity to change the mood of a teacher, the order of the school day or who is in the room. They cannot influence how they will be assessed or even when. They cannot change the colour of a uniform or move from their chair or demonstrate restlessness.
I often wonder whether an adult placed in a similar situation, day after day, for years, would expect themselves to be motivated. Would they themselves demonstrate initiative? Or would they themselves not rebel, daydream, and become subversive or even catatonic?
This is crucial. Any assessment of the behaviour or performance of a student should look at two aspects very closely. The first question for parents and teachers to answer in regards to a perceived lack of motivation or interest, is why a person should be interested, motivated or engaged with anything they say. Of course, the obvious answer is because education matters. A second aspect to this is that a child cannot be expected to prioritise the things that are of most value to them, as the child does not have the maturity to know.
The second question for parents and educators is what mix of structure and free time, consideration and spontaneity, activity and stillness, humour and seriousness, channelled thinking and free thinking, paired or group work and individual work should characterise an environment where a child is motivated to learn. Even asking a question framed around these aspects will lead to much improved understanding of students.
It may be true that a child is lazy, easily distracted or unmotivated. However, prior to making such an assessment, there should be a serious evaluation of the factors shaping a child and whether they are likely to be motivating or frustrating. High expectations that focus on outcomes can cripple children and adults alike. Why should a child find that motivating? Comparison with older siblings or a parent’s own experience can be soul-destroying if a child feels like they are not good enough. Should comparison spark a sense of motivation or a sense of frustration? A sense of unworthiness?
The real question, the ‘reverse answer’, should be broadly inclusive of the outer and inner context facing the child. The context in this regard includes to what extent the child can adapt in order to learn to like and accept the things they cannot change.
This is the counter balance. In each situation there is a need to accommodate and adapt to the things that must be done. This means that students should be encouraged to be flexible in their thinking and to change themselves in order to learn to learn. This is an aspect to maturing. Against this, teachers and parents should encourage appropriate adaptations to their own approach, taking some ownership of issues rather than imposing them onto the child.
This is important. If we begin with the premise that very few, if any, children are intrinsically lazy, then we start from a point of collaboration. From here, teachers and parents can seek the best ways to help children to notice the things that matter and value the things likely to most benefit them in their lives. This requires managing a locus of motivation that is extrinsic to one that becomes intrinsic. All educators should strive to effect this change.