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Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Reading - Chapter Eight

Eric Jensen's Teaching with the Brain in Mind Chapter Eight, "Motivation and Engagement" deals with how we motivate our students. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
Motivation is defined as the combination of "arousal" and "drive." Arousal indicates a goal is to be achieved and drive as the force to make it happen. So how does the brain influence these two forces? In theory, each new year should bring renewed hope and aspirations. All too often, these hopes are dashed early in the school year. One thing we need to do is unlearn them about failure. We have to break the demotivation forces such as a lack of positive relation with a teacher of friend, learned helplessness, disrespected because of race or sex, perceived threats, drug use, that school is irrelevant. Students who fail have a record of failure so we need to unlearn them before we can teach them. Certainly exercises that they can accomplish quickly, with ease, and successfully will begin the process. Using direct and blatant rewards is just the start.

When considering how rewards affect the brain, we only need to recognize how when we are recognized in a favorable way about our work, we do better. Our pleasure neurons have been stroked and that feeling is one we want to repeat over and over again. The same goes for our students. Consider the motivation of Wall Street workers as they anticipate their bonus or waiters who work for tips. Students, too, work for rewards be they treats, prizes, or grades.
The brain does the same thing with rewards. The brain makes its own opiates in response to rewards. These chemicals then become useful in helping the brain in other functions demanded of the classroom. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. Another consideration is the reward that is is anticipated as opposed to the reward that comes as a surprise. The chemicals in the brain do different things in each situation. So as teachers we can do some planning, anticipation of rewards with our students as we plot out a study plan, provide reward for projects, and the like. The caveat is to be careful of expectations for rewards for menial tasks and even escalation of reward expectation as in greed. Not all rewards are equal to all students.
So be judicious, use low cost rewards, use abstract rewards, and begin to develop intrinsic rewards.

If rewards isn't your thing or feasible, conversations with students during planning process, altering a project because of student feedback, and choice within projects on small and big things will build paths for intrinsic motivation. Verbal encouragement and modeling the joy of learning very often is reward enough for students. Constant, consistent feedback is always loved by the students. I know when my students come into the class and don't find a paper with their name on it, I remind them they were reading yesterday and didn't add anything new to their webpage. That reminder is enough as they tell me they will be writing today and know they will have paper feedback tomorrow. That is their motivation for that day.
In short, much of the research shows that motivation is a direct result of how teachers treat students. For me it is create the challenge, provide the tools for success, build a supportive environment, and get out of the way. And oh yeah, I don't answer my own questions and I take a couple of minutes to respond to a call for help, which is usually solved by the time I do respond.

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