Motivation

I woke up at 3 a.m. this week to the sharp sound of firecrackers popping in celebration of Lunar New Year. My first thought was, “What motivated someone to do this?” Other times and places made perfect sense to me– but 3 a.m. in the fog of a random residential neighborhood in San Francisco?

And then I remembered the people I work with every day: Teenagers.

Those of us who teach teenagers talk a lot about how our students are unmotivated. Why aren’t my students motivated to come to class on time? Why aren’t they motivated to do their work? Why aren’t they motivated to succeed?

When we step back for a moment, we can see that teenagers have plenty of motivation. But their motivation does not always lie in the areas we choose. As Jay Gillen writes in his brilliant new book Educating for Insurgency, “[A]nyone who deals regularly with young people knows that they are dangerous and unpredictable, and unlikely to remain still and quiet…. The problem of motivation is not that they don’t move; the problem is that they don’t move in the interests of others unless coerced.”

While Gillen may be over-stating the point a bit, the idea of coercion is central to the operation of schools. I was talking recently with a young woman who was late to almost every class, slinking around in the hallway trying to avoid adults. I asked, “Why did you bother coming to school this morning if you’re just going to spend all day like this?” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “What do you mean? I have to. It’s the law!”

It’s not just disaffected outliers like this young woman who encounter coercion in school. The current standards movement tells us that teachers should determine in advance what “all students will know and be able to do.” While there are many benefits to academic standards, this notion that teachers will “deliver” standards and learning objectives to students, regardless of the students’ interests, has made classrooms even more coercive and disconnected from students’ motivations.

I was in a math class recently where the teacher was leading a fantastic “number talk” discussion where students were given four numbers and asked to create a true mathematical equality using all four numbers only once. The entire class was engaged and struggling to come up with new ideas, but the discussion was taking longer than the teacher had intended. The teacher was worried about making sure that students “got” a certain concept which related to an equality the students had not yet discovered, and he said he was going to share his idea.

“No!” cried several students at once, “let us keep trying!” One of the more eloquent students said politely, “I know you’re excited to share your solution, Mr. _______, but can you give us another minute please?” As I watched this exchange, I saw such energy, such motivation surging through these young mathematicians– the kind of motivation that might lead someone to stay up until 3 a.m. and set off fireworks in the fog. The teacher gave them another minute, but then said, “OK, now I’m going to tell you my idea. I need you to take notes.”

Immediately the buzz in the classroom subsided, as students dutifully opened their notebooks and copied down the mathematical concept they were supposed to learn.

With the best of intentions, teachers everywhere undercut student motivation like this. That’s why at June Jordan School for Equity, one of our key instructional practices is “Students as Intellectuals”– the idea that teachers should develop their classroom as a community of thinkers who feel a sense of collective accountability for academic inquiry, for the exploration of challenging questions and problems which are linked to the students’ own intellectual interests.