How can we get students to use their powers for good rather than evil?


OK, so not “evil” but how can we get them to use the ingenuity, dedication, critical thinking, creativity and honest hard work that they apply to their everyday interests to school?

I just watched an animation of a talk on motivation.  The talk is speaking specifically about motivation in the workplace and the pretty counter-intuitive finding that increased monetary reward does not produce better work (and in fact in some cases produces poorer performance).  But it’s most definitely applicable to classrooms as well…where our “monetary rewards” are the grades students receive.

So why do students, who are clearly creative, capable of focused work and motivated in everyday tasks seem incapable of such performance in school?  The same reason that people will spend hours and hours of their free-time working harder than they do at their paying jobs to create something or work on something (such as the Linux, Apache and Wikipedia examples described in the video) when they’re not getting anything tangible out of it.

(I really suggest watching the 11 min video as it’s really good…but here’s my “take-away version for the educator” below)

People are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Let’s look at a traditional classroom first.

Autonomy – not usually.  Usually they are told what to study, how to study it and how to show what they know.

Mastery – not usually.  Usually they are given a specific amount of time to work on learning something and then the test is given and then the class moves on.  Students are not given the time and support to work towards mastery.

Purpose – not usually.  Usually the purpose for studying a topic, in the eyes of the student, includes things such as “for a grade,” “because I’ll next in the next chapter, year or class,” “because we have to,” “because they make us,” and various versions of these.

Let’s look at a different type of classroom.

I combine many teaching methods and techniques into my classroom, but two of them serve as the centerpieces.  One is mastery learning.   The other is thematic learning.

I’m by no means saying that my classroom is perfect and by no means is every single one of my students motivated all the time.  Everyone in education knows there are no silver bullets.  And that’s where all the little things that I combine come in – you have to use specific teaching methods to reach specific students, to address certain concepts or misconceptions, or just to keep things fresh for you and your students.  But these two major components of my classroom allow me to increase student motivation and performance in a way that is truly astounding.

Autonomy.  Absolutely!  In my mastery learning chemistry classroom, students choose how they’re going to learn a concept and they often choose how they are going to demonstrate understanding in final chapter projects.

Mastery.  Absolutely!  That’s the whole point of a mastery learning course – they work on a concept until they can show mastery and then, and only then, are they moved on.  Students truly respond differently when they know that they are given the time and support needed to master a concept versus a teacher or class moving on at a given point in time whether they’ve learned it or not.  Lower level students have a completely different attitude in a mastery learning environment.  And the mastery of topics early in the course, combined with the increased self-confidence and self-efficacy mean the student moves even faster through material as the course progresses and those that started out slower often catch up.

Purpose.  Absolutely!  I teach in a completely thematic manner in which students learn the concepts they need to know in order to understand a specific theme or problem.  There are lots of names for this type of learning (problem-based learning, project-based learning, thematic learning, etc.)  But what it is not is applied learning – applied learning means you learn the material first and then apply it to a concept, problem or purpose.  Instead, PBL or thematic learning uses the problem/project/theme to introduce the concepts themselves.  The problem/project/theme are interwoven and included before, during and after concept introduction and set the entire purpose for learning.  My students still do the exact same chemistry concepts they’ve always done…however they do them on a completely need-to-know basis.  There is now a direct, tangible, immediate purpose for each concept they learn in the course.

For more Information

Here’s some blogs I’ve written about various aspects of mastery classes.
Here’s my Science Mastery Learning website (it’s very new, so feel free to add content!)
Here’s my newly published book on Mastery Learning in the Science Classroom: Success for Every Student available from NSTA Press.

Here’s info on the thematic high school chemistry textbook I wrote, Discovering Chemistry You Need to Know available from Kendall Hunt Publishing.

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