Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Training: Effective Student Motivation

Everybody’s talkin’ at me.
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’.
Only the echoes of my mind.
– Harry Nillson Aerial Ballet (1969)

Can you imagine anyone’ s attending a course called, “Controlling Your Smoking Habits” in a “school” called “Tobacco Growers' University?” How about attending a course called, “How Used Car Salesmen Lie” at the “Automotive Dealers Institute?”

I had a graduate student complain to me once that the facts and considerations that I presented in class tended to diminish her “enthusiasm” for entering the teaching profession. I asked her in response if she would go to a doctor who was enthusiastic but barely skilled rather than someone like the TV character, House: little charm, little optimism, but with a ton of competence and no b.s. Her choice was clear, and wise.

Suppose you had been explicitly trained in what might motivate kids of all ages to perform on command – “on command,” because this is what your supervisor, your principal, your school board members and your kids’ parents will expect you to do. (Not that they themselves could do it!)

If you had such knowledge of motivation you would soon discover how infrequently you could use it, because the behavioral foundations for its success were lacking both in the students and in the school environment. Kids who don’t try to read, or can't play without bullying, or are unwilling to pay attention to anything that doesn’t deal with gossip, toys, games, or movies – and for teenagers, sex and violence – are difficult to get involved consistently in classroom activities. (Let’s not even get into the typical class interruptions your administrators believe it to be a matter of life or death to make at any time of the day!)

Just as a skillful doctor could tell whether you have been not taking your medicine or straying from your exercise plan or diet, so would you, a motivational expert, be more likely to recognize the many outside influences that undermine a student’s motivation for school activities.

Just think about who and what those outside influences might be. Would they welcome your observations on how they interfere with or fail to support student motivation?

And, by the way, would the course you took called something like, “Classroom Management,” have been more honestly labeled, “Keeping Up Your Teacherly Enthusiasm While Your Class (and Career) is Going to Down the Tubes?” Would any university or college permit their "cash cow," the Department of Teacher Preparation -- or something similarly named -- risk rocking the boat by teaching its students how parents, politicians, school administrators and college professors all contribute to stultifying student motivation?

To examine these issues further, see Motivation: why is this a worry?

--- EGR

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