The Secret of Motivation


I saw this question tweeted today by @surreallyno :

Why is it that traditionalists rarely, if ever, emphasize curiosity as a driver of academic performance? Any ideas?

She then said that:

“The point being made is that “how” you teach these subjects has a profound effect on curiosity and overall learning.”

Bear with me as it might not immediately seem relevant but this discussion reminded me of a rather annoying AS politics essay question set last summer. It looked innocuous enough but many of our students flunked it. We had covered all the necessary material, the students had dutifully learnt the right stuff but they failed to see how their learning could be applied to the question. This is a particular issue for us with AS politics and leads to two big questions.

1. Why can’t my students see the relevance of their learning when the question is phrased in an unfamiliar way?
2. What can we do about this?

I have a good answer to question one. It is found in this brilliant article. Teaching question analysis will only take you so far. Our students did well overall but this question highlighted that they lacked broader knowledge and understanding of politics. That is not to say they did not understand what they had learnt, understanding is not all or nothing.

I don’t want to overstate the problem, our department is successful but I do want to build the best possible understanding. I could see that despite our efforts knowledge was sometimes narrowly grasped without enough understanding of the interconnections between concepts. This wasn’t because of a lack of focus on understanding. We just need more than 10 months with real novice learners especially as the course is very content heavy. Now, our students should have all been following politics actively outside of lessons. This should be the solution, a way for them to get up to speed but they frequently seemed to lack that degree of curiosity and personal motivation. They enjoyed lessons (well over half of each cohort go on to study politics at university) However, not enough news was being watched and while there was plenty of curiosity to read the sports section of the newspaper few were tucking into the political comment!

Milos’ tweet suggests the way to provoke curiosity was to change ‘how’ we taught. I presume she believes that a guided discovery or inquiry approach would stimulate curiosity. I largely disagree. I think in this case it was because we were expecting a discovery approach to work that there were problems. Our students, watching news they didn’t really understand and reading articles referencing countless issues they had no knowledge of, were understandably put off. In lessons we are always discussing relevant current events but our course is full and explaining one news story can take 15 minutes with new students.

I decided the solution was a new format for our Politics Society. Over many years I and colleagues have tried more student led or discussion formats. This year we would meet weekly in the lunch break, ‘encourage’ our year 12s especially, to attend and use the time purely to brief attendees on the last week in politics. Ultimately we would want the club to develop a discussion based format but initially our club would be very teacher led. The first sessions ended up being pure lecture as our students didn’t really ask questions and questioning them too much would turn the sessions into ordinary lessons. It seemed I had decided to encourage discussion through a club that was mainly me and my colleague lecturing! At this point we could have lost our nerve, organised some rather banal, ill informed debate or persuaded a few more able kids to lead sessions even though they were not very well informed themselves. However, my theory was that once students had access to understand more of the television news and the papers they would become increasingly enthusiastic and able to join in. This is because I believe curiosity and motivation blossom as you grasp more about interesting things and aren’t so much generic traits that can be inculcated. We can’t teach a generic ‘love of learning’, a sort of indiscriminate desire to find out everything and anything. You learn things and as you do so you often become more and more interested.

Would it work? Would enthusiasm grow or weaken as students were told more and more about current events?

Life isn’t a Disney film but I’m really happy with how it is going. The classroom is full every week. We have some regular attendees who don’t even study politics and some that had to be initially ‘encouraged’ to attend who have continued voluntarily. They like finding out stuff from us, asking us questions, having us explain, even in their own time. As our students have gained some real knowledge of events they have started to contribute and gradually there has been more discussion. Our year 13s certainly contribute more than the year 12s but that rather proves my point. The more novice the learner the more reliant they are on the teacher and the less they can meaningfully offer. A few times I have worried that a club of this sort should be student led but I’ve held my nerve and waited for our students to feel more confident they have some grasp of current events before expecting them to take the lead. Some of my year 13s were chatting about how much they are enjoying politics a few weeks ago. They explained that the more they have studied, the more interesting it has become. they have certainly gained increasing enjoyment from Politics Club and are much more engaged by current events than they were initially. One student, then another, asked me, as a favour,  if they could run a Politics Club session. I grinned – broadly – of course they could. I thought back to their start in year 12. One of them probably only chose politics because she was good at history and both subjects were taught by the same teachers. She started with no special enthusiasm but now she is genuinely excited to talk politics with anyone interested.

I think most would agree that intellectual curiosity and thus motivation to learn are important but complex. It bothers me when I hear, for example,  early years teachers,claiming that because activities are child led children will grow up more intellectually curious. There seems little basis for this claim. I don’t think discovery learning is effective but we all know of kids fired up by traditional and progressive teaching. I’ll plug away at helping my students gradually learn more of what is innately interesting about my subject. As long as they understand it I’ll not particularly worry about the way they encountered that information.


9 thoughts on “The Secret of Motivation

  1. Fantastic article, thank you.
    I agree wholeheartedly with so much of what you have said. I am a Prep (4-6year olds) teacher and having taught this age group for about 15 years I am a firm believer in explicit focused teaching. We too find we can that rephrasing a question or task can throw
    them completely!! We spend a whole term doing one subject e.g. 0-10 to death but then the next term we do them to death again with a different focus…. It is like we have never even looked at that content before!!
    We do have lots of open ended exploratory activities, especially in the afternoons but the morning are seriously teacher led. The afternoons give them an opportunity to make their own connections and deeper their understanding but without the morning input those connections would never happen.

  2. Watching the news is not — these days — a good way of getting content knowledge in political science, as you appear to assume. I watch the news today and am struck by how much “news” is actually narrative-shaping exercises that are relatively fact-free. That is, it is thoroughly steeped in connections without providing the underlying structural framework for those connections. It is a good illustration of the madness being pressed in many education circles today that I would characterize as “understanding without knowledge”. Where you get the story, the conclusions, the “connections” first, before you are exposed to the raw, directly-taught factual basis for all of the above. In political science this is especially the case as many are devoted to supporting the dominant narrative – or failing that, one which they believe to be suppressed and wish to become dominant. At that point education is no longer education but indoctrination. I’m all for giving students facts and expecting them to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. I’m afraid the conversation about “connections” often leads down the road to manipulated conclusions. It is madness, or irresponsibility, or both, to talk about students making connections without a broad, solid schema of factual knowledge in place. And I am convinced that it is about setting the stage for indoctrination. Teach (and provide access to) the facts. Then let the conversation move to connections.

    1. I entirely agree with you. Our club was set up to give the facts. Once they have better knowledge our students should be better able to get the information they need from the news. Our students do need to know about current events though and have to get that infomation somehow. For example if we are looking at different British electoral systems they have to be able to give examples of recent election results using different systems.
      I do find it annoying that the politics course, through the topics chosen and questions asked, actually frames the debate certain ways.

      1. You’re in UK? Well, in addition to giving access to facts, why not require students to expose themselves to contrasting positions? — pin down contemporary stories and make them read about it in both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Students must be able to summarize the key points of both positions. And they must be able to effectively argue for either one (assigned randomly) whether or not they agree with it. In mathematics we find the best learning of logical content (proofs, derivations, etc.) occurs when students are taught to challenge claims and put competing arguments to the test; pick holes in the professor’s proofs. I imagine the same is true in political science. Do students frequently challenge your stated or inferred positions?

      2. I think the UK education system must be very different from the Canadian. The essays my 16-18 year olds have to write are all meant to be debates of contrasting viewpoints.
        In fact my main problem as a history and politics teacher is absolutely not that there is no debate. Students would all fail their exams if their essays were not active debates weighing up the strength of opposing viewpoints. Of course, how far students challenge the suppositions of the question actually depends on how aware they are that this would be possible.
        A real problem is that the exam system is predicated on the notion that students can have generic analytic skills that will influence how well they debate rather than the quality of analysis hinging on expertise.

  3. Hi Heather,
    Agree with all of this. I think the role of the teacher, particularly in a subject such as politics, is to model to students what it is to be ‘someone who lives and breathes that subject.’ For me that means constantly sharing what you’re reading, watching, listening to and thinking about your subject. We know that many kids, even from middle-class backgrounds, lack this role-model, so if the teacher’s not providing this, who is? Your discussion group is a great facilitator of that. It provides a safe space where students can express themselves and practise formulating their ideas, finding out what they sound like in public (which is usually different from how they sound in one’s head!) I found a Facebook forum (again teacher-led by introducing topical news stories that dovetail with the course – students can be surprisingly poor at spotting them) can be a useful adjunct to this, providing a place for students to express themselves in writing, rather than verbally. This can appeal to ‘geeky boys’ who might feel less comfortable in the discussion group.
    I’m not sure there is a traditionalist/progressive dichotomy here. The aim is the same, to create motivated, independent learners. But I think kids have to know what that looks like before they can be one!

    1. Hi Jon!
      Agreed, especially regarding role modelling. In fact I’m in your debt because you role modelled a good format of a politics club to me, a few years ago now! If I wasn’t already spending far too much time on twitter I might try a Facebook forum. I think the degree of meaningful student participation from your group does depend on the initial political literacy of the group you have. Recently, we have had only a few students able or willing to contribute much that is constructive when they start out at AS. I agree that most, but not all, teachers want the same ultimate goal (very influential gurus such as Guy Claxton don’t and there is a stronger focus on generic skills as goals in their own right at KS1, 2 and 3). I’m not sure there is a false dichotomy.

      There is a lively debate over how curiosity/motivation/independence can be achieved and whether they are generic qualities that can transfer between contexts. (See here )At primary level there is much talk of creating a ‘love of learning’. In fact reception kids are even assessed on their attitudes to learning in a very general sense. I do disagree with the strong trend in education that tries to inculcate generic skills such as ‘independence’ or ‘curiosity’ mainly because I question the efficacy of these attempts and there is an opportunity cost if time that might be spent teaching more knowledge is focused on time consuming inquiry exercises justified because they apparently develop those generic skills. That is especially unfortunate if the time you might have spent teaching the material directly would actually create the very curiosity we all want.
      Hope that makes sense and have a great Christmas!

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