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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Exploring Apathy and Motivation in Teachers and Students as Professional Development

"I'm up there talking and they don't even care."
"10 out of 26 kids turned in a rough draft. I told them that they'd lose points, and the next day only 2 more kids turned one in."
"I planned the hell outta this lesson and it totally bombed. I thought they'd be excited, but they were like, 'Whatever.'"

And then we play the blame game:
  • it's their home life; they don't value education
  • they're always multi-tasking and can't focus when I'm just trying to teach them
  • their other teachers never collect homework so they're used to doing nothing
  • last year's teacher didn't teach them anything so they're not ready for this class
Image courtesy of kirkh from Flickr
So whether I've heard these things or said these things, that doesn't matter. It doesn't change the fact that student apathy exists. It also doesn't change the fact that teacher apathy exists. In our case, though, as teachers, it's the apathy to evaluate our own practices and determine what our role is in student motivation.

Because I had numerous conversations during the first semester about student motivation--in the hall, in the lunchroom, in my office--I knew this topic was on teachers' minds. When veteran teachers--those teaching over a decade--start to compare the current level of apathy they're facing and claim that "it's never been this bad," it's worth examining. Is that true? Is there some new development we need to be concerned about regarding student apathy?

In examining Larry Ferlazzo's blog (which all teachers should do if they are looking for ideas on how to be a better teacher), he has 97 links, literally, under his post of "The best posts and articles on motivating students." Of those 97, more than a dozen are about how cash incentives don't work, or how bribes in general don't work. So what does?

Well, Larry's written books on student motivation, so he has some really strong suggestions. In his piece for Education Week on August 24, 2011, Larry offers some ideas, including building relationships, using problem-based or project-based learning, and offering more student choice in assignments.

For additional insight in answering the question about how we motivate students, Larry sought out noted author and speaker Daniel Pink, whose TED talk (at left) about motivation has garnered over 7 million views to date. Daniel suggests that the first step is to "probe why the student isn't motivated. Is he bored by the topic? Worried that he doesn't have the ability to master the material? Irritated about something else going on in his life?" Great questions to consider.

Daniel goes on to offer a second take: "some students aren't motivated to learn particular subjects because they have no idea why they're learning it."

So if we consider the responses from Larry and Daniel, we should investigate if students may be bored, worried, or irritated, all the while trying to build relationships with them. Once we do that, we should move toward more student choice and inquiry. And then there's that issue of relevance. Well how will we know if they're bored, or if they think what they're doing is irrelevant? How can teachers better understand the students'  issues? How can students better understand the choices we make? How can we make better choices? These are the questions I want to consider.

One of my job descriptions is "Instructional Coach"; essentially, I teach 2 classes of Rhetoric, spend probably 15 minutes each day picking Hackney's brain about what we want to do with our Rhetoric course in the upcoming days, and the rest of my day I am either collaborating with teachers or working independently on curriculum. My counterpart for Social Science, Paul Oswald, has been having these same conversations with teachers about student apathy and motivation. Paul and I decided to begin discussions about how to structure a professional development opportunity for teachers to move us all forward on this topic, but we weren't sure where our conversation would go. 

We can ask the questions Daniel Pink suggests, and we can tell teachers to start doing inquiry-based projects that incorporate student choice, but it's not that easy. There's no roadmap for initiating this dialogue.

Yesterday afternoon we headed to an empty meeting room and started brainstorming. This is one of my favorite parts of the job. Sometimes, the ideas are maybe too grandiose or idealistic to ever conceivably happen; sometimes the ideas are just bad. But I know that the best ideas typically occur during an exchange when both parties are invested in the discussion and in the moment, and when the idea is relevant. The ideas began as simply offering roundtable discussions with teachers during which we would discuss our experiences with motivation, followed-up by discussing articles we would post a few days before to inspire teachers to rethink how they motivate students. Then we thought of the pitfalls of that idea, in particular the idea that we might be meeting in late April to discuss motivating students at a time in the year when motivation is most difficult.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Paul and I just kept talking. What if we made it like an inquiry-based thing? What if we get students involved? What if we do a survey? What if we interview teachers? What if we interview students? What if we make a documentary (of sorts) about motivation? 

So with that, we had the feeling that we were on to something. This occurred 30 minutes into our discussion, 15 minutes before the end of the school day. We hadn't worked out all the details, but we were motivated ourselves. Taking a metacognitive approach for a moment, how did we get so motivated here? Well, we knew it was relevant; we had had a number of unsolicited conversations about the issue. Also, the idea that we were engaging in inquiry motivated us. Moreover, there was choice. We were making our own choices about the process and the product. That part about building relationships is something Paul and I started 14 years ago when we began teaching at West together. Our sample size of two is already supporting the ideas of Pink and Ferlazzo.

To capitalize on our momentum, we called Eric Patnoudes (@NoApp4Pedagogy), who is our school's Instructional Technologist and edublogger himself, and talked with him about getting involved. As Eric always does, he listened, offered his technological support, encouraged us, and then setup a meeting in the next two weeks to finalize details.

Paul and I headed our separate ways as the final bell approached, and I felt inspired and motivated. I think we've all felt that way as teachers after a great session of collaboration or walked out of a relevant conference or workshop. I wanted to capture this now in a blogpost, hoping that it will help hold me accountable to seeing this thing through. After Paul and I talked about it with our lunch crew of Wes, Amanda, and Lauren, they were quick to offer their help, saying they could recommend names of students from their classes who may be interested in participating in a roundtable discussion on motivation that we could use in our video.

I don't know how this will all play out--whether we have students of different abilities, ages, races and backgrounds having a teacher-moderated roundtable discussion or if we do a combination of teacher and student interviews combined with survey data--but I do know that collaboration, inquiry, choice, integrated technology and an authentic audience were really motivating for me, and I hope to discover if that is what it takes to motivate both our students and our teachers.