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July 2009 Archives

Freedom as Motivation

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“Unless the pupils are continually sustained by the evocation of interest, the acquirement of technique, and the excitement of success, they can never make progress, and will certainly lose heart.”

There you have it— the prescription for student success from one of the Grand Masters of education, Alfred North Whitehead (1929, p. 38). Of course, there’s much more to what he said in The Aims of Education, a collection of lectures and essays first published in 1929. But in an elegant phrase or two Whitehead reveals the process and the affective and cognitive parts of learning. Interest, technique, and success or, from another perspective, motivation, disciplined learning, and assessment.

What creates motivation in a student or in any of us? The literature is voluminous and sometimes inspiring. The contrast is drawn between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, between external rewards and punishments and the upwelling joy of discovery. Whitehead’s trenchant observation is that “Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension. You may endeavor to excite interest by means of birch rods, or you may coax it by the incitement of pleasurable activity. But without interest there will be no progress” (p. 31).

Where does the interest come from and how can we fan that flame? The general take on motivation is that it’s there—we just need to know where to look and how to release it. Raymond Wlodkowski says “Motivation is the natural human capacity to direct energy in pursuit of a goal” (1999, pp. 7-8). The approach is like that of an amateur electrician: connect the right wires and the lights will come on. It might take several tries and rude shocks, and the process might blow a few bulbs, but once the connection is made it can be maintained.

But motivating students is far from simple. We don’t exactly know all the influences on motivation nor can we always accurately track the line from motivation to behavior. Whitehead notes that, “It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative” (p. 35). That’s the Catch-22: as soon as we try to harness the interest all the energy sags but without direction the interest itself soon dissipates. A balance can be found, said Whitehead, between freedom and discipline. The student begins in wonder and freedom—Whitehead called it ‘romance’— proceeds to a disciplined ‘precision’ and gradually achieves ‘generalization,’ the ability to weave the details into broad principles of application.

That is the process he advocates from elementary school to university but he also sees it built in to every lesson and unit along the way. Romance. . . . precision. . . . generalization. The joy of discovery. . . . the precision of the facts. . . the application to general principles. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-off end of education,” he says. “The pupils must be continually enjoying some fruition and starting afresh—if the teacher is stimulating in exact proportion to his success in satisfying the rhythmic cravings of his pupils” (p. 19).

While Whitehead cursed the ‘dullards’ who would crush wonder in the student, he was equally stern with those who shoveled dead facts on students in hopes that the sheer weight of knowledge would benefit them. “A certain ruthless definiteness is essential in education. I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. . . . Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it” (p. 36).

I read those words years ago in graduate school but they went right over my head. Concerned as I was to grasp facts, knowledge, the whole load at once, I missed the implications. I reread Whitehead recently and his words went right through me. I’d like to do over every class I taught in which I quelled wonder in favor of precision or pushed students to application before they had grasped the tools of precision and knowledge.

Can we motivate students? No, not if they aren’t interested. Can we interest them? Yes, if we connect our interests to theirs, show them what can be done, and let them do it.

Our role is simple says Michael Theall: we are “to create situations in which others provide their own motivation to succeed” (1999, p. 1). Whitehead agreed, “But for all your stimulation and guidance the creative impulse towards growth comes from within, and is intensely characteristic of the individual” (p. 39).

If we build it well they will come with eagerness, each in their own way.

References:
Theall, M. (1999). Editor’s Notes. In Michael Theall (Ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 1-3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: Macmillan Company.
Wlodkowski, Raymond J. (1999). Motivation and Diversity: A Framework for Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 7-16. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

A Community of Privilege

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I was raised by my grandparents, both of them teachers, and I lived with them in Canada on the campus of a private, church-based college and at Pacific Union College in California, until I graduated, got married, and moved to British Columbia.

I have benefited from living on or near college campuses most of my life. The rhythms of the school year are as natural to me as the seasons, and the peculiar blend of exhilaration and weariness that accompanies faculty life are second nature to me.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of sneaking into the back of my grandfather’s European history classes and watching newsreels of the Second World War, or being tossed—giggling with glee—from one brawny college kid to another up on the college farm in Canada as they were bringing in the hay. Later, at Pacific Union College in California, I witnessed a succession of my grandparents’ former students coming through our home every summer. I listened as they talked and laughed with my grandparents, as they proudly introduced their children (with whom I then got to play), and as they sometimes wept, recalling classmates who had died or incidents in their own lives.

Without fail, before they stood to leave, these former students would turn to my grandparents and thank them for the years of learning and mentoring they had enjoyed. Both of my grandparents had been deans, both had been librarians, and both had been teachers—so the kinds of learning their students had experienced from my grandparents had been varied, both in content and in venue. But the bond between student and teacher was evident even after all the years. Inevitably, after these families had driven away from our home, built high up on the mountains overlooking the Napa Valley, my grandparents would turn from waving goodbye and head back into the house to reminisce about their students.

We are shaped, to a large extent, by our early experiences, and we take our cues for situations in life from the experiences of the past. My grandparents’ lives were certainly shaped by their years of teaching and it was fortuitous, although not inevitable, that my life would be shaped by those years with them. Now, all these years later, I can appreciate how privileged my upbringing was. All the resources of a college campus were at my disposal as a kid. Professors, janitors, college students, cafeteria and bakery staff —all were my friends. It was never in doubt whether I would—or could—go to college. I came of age just north of San Francisco in the sixties—and the currents of politics, popular culture, the struggle for civil rights, and the agonizing spectacle of the Vietnam War were what I lived and breathed. My son, for whom the Sixties are the Dark Ages, wonders how I survived without iPods, cell phones, computers, Star Wars, and U2. I managed—somehow.

Now, as I listen to the stories students tell of how they are the first of their families to go to college, or their casual talk of friends or relatives who are the victims of violence, or the many ways the American uber-culture clashes with their parents culture and languages, I marvel at their determination. I had it so easy by comparison. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed of the privileges I had growing up. But I do realize how deep and how pervasive the roots of racism are in our culture, and how many of the benefits of my middle-class upbringing are things almost out of reach for many young people these days.

This is one of the reasons why students and teachers need each other—to flourish within this community of privilege so that we can make a difference to those without community. The possibility of learning and the community that supports it ought not to be squandered or taken for granted. It is a gift that changes us in the receiving.

Knowledge Base

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“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” somebody once said. I was reminded of this one Thanksgiving when I was 16 and my college-age cousin came over for dinner. What he had learned in one semester of General Psychology and Intro to Political Science was astonishing. It overturned all our cherished notions of human development and social organization. It rewrote the history of Western Civilization and set Hegel, Freud, and Rousseau on their collective little ears.

I learned so much that day, not the least of which was the intoxicating lure of knowledge pursued for its own sake. What my cousin lacked in perspective he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Some years later, doggedly but joyfully trying to swim through a sea of Greek verbs and nouns, I learned that the ‘enthusiastic’ were those who were ‘in God,’ caught up, as it were, to the heavens.

Confucius, master teacher that he was, believed this is the kind of energy necessary to learning. He declared that if he held up one corner of a handkerchief and a prospective student didn’t come back with the other three corners, he couldn’t teach that person anything. Now that’s an entrance requirement.

By the time first-year students arrive on campus they have already endured 12 years of noble experimentation in building a knowledge base. Much as in the world of corporate finance some of this knowledge has come through mergers (biology and chemistry), some through hostile takeovers (addition, division, multiplication), some as a result of downsizing (this is all you need to know for the test), and some through acquisition (this is good for you).

And now they are in college where the possibilities for increasing that knowledge base may seem both daunting and exciting. And perhaps for the first time as working learners they will be asked to focus, narrow, limit and direct their knowledge acquisition. People will ask them, by way of conversation openers, “What’s your major?” or “What are you planning to do with that?”

Those questions come from a desire to know them, to add to someone’s knowledge base the equivalents of name, rank, and serial number. They begin to be defined by what they know—and don’t know—a curious rite of passage into adulthood that seeks to categorize by the lowest common denominator. What we don’t know can be seen as a weakness and so we try to deny, cover up, and otherwise bluff our way through life. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Confucius counseled humility. Come to knowledge acquisition with a humble spirit, an open mind, and boundless enthusiasm. Better yet, realize (make real) that knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, the tempering that comes through experience applied with humor and compassion. The author of Ecclesiastes, his constant tone one of irony and rueful skepticism, does not sneer, however, when he urges us to ‘get wisdom.’

The role that teachers are called to play in all this is simple. As Robert Grudin says in The Grace of Great Things, “The fundamental motive of true teaching is the love that seeks and studies and performs. True teachers not only impart knowledge and method but awaken the love of learning by virtue of their own reflected love.”

We might, as teachers and learners ourselves, feel caught up to the third heaven of the joy of learning. Rejoice in that feeling! On the other hand, we may find ourselves, like Dante, feeling our way through a dark wood with no idea where in Hell we are. We may rejoice in that feeling too, for we are not lost. We are on the brink of discovering how boundless the world is and how rich the experience of those who enter into it with joy and humility.

Entering the Cave

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“I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.”
— Howard Gardner, 1999

If you browse around Facebook a bit you might be accosted by an application challenging you to test your IQ. It pulls a few friends from your list and assigns them labels about their intelligence. You come at the end of a descending line and the implication is that you’re a moron if you don’t take the quiz. That’s okay: if it means avoiding a plethora of notifications and sidebar advertisements, I’m happy to be the moron.

While we’re fascinated with intelligence it’s usually the first thing we denigrate when ridiculing others. My own highly subjective research suggests that readers’ comments online about their fellow respondents’ intelligence become personal and even vicious after about 10 entries. It’s illuminating to graph out the trajectory of these ad hominem comments. You’d think we were a nation of amateur jihadists, ready to kosh each other upside the head at the slightest deviation from conformist bloviating. But not to worry—this won’t be another rant about the coarseness of public discourse.

Howard Gardner has been exploring intelligence for the whole of his career and has made the concept of multiple intelligences part of educational conversation since 1983 when Frames of Mind, his first book on the subject, was published. In a chapter published in 1999 he gives educators and parents a view into how his multiple intelligences (MI) approach can work in the classroom.

Students do not arrive in the classroom with blank slates for minds nor can they be measured by a single axis of intellectual accomplishment. They are the sum total of their experiences to that moment and they apprehend and comprehend the world through multiple intelligences. The problem for the educator is how to effectively teach students who learn in very different ways. Gardner believes it’s complicated but not impossible. On the contrary, MI offers the teacher various ways to reach all students.

He holds that every person should master a core set of ideas, although he’s not going to dictate the canon. But to penetrate to those ideas—and to fully understand them—we need to provide students with an opening to the cave. Gardner’s begins with entry points, six of them, that correspond to his multiple intelligences.

Narrative, quantitative/numerical, foundational/existential, aesthetic, hands-on, and social—there’s something here for everyone. An entry point to the idea of evolution for the hands-on approach might be the breeding of generations of fruit flies while for the students who ponder the foundational ‘bottom-line’ questions, what evolution implies about human nature is what draws them across the threshold. The entry point ushers students into the disciplinary arena, arousing their interests, and forming commitments to thinking—the phase that Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘romance’ of learning.

But while the entry point draws in the student it does not specifically help with understanding the idea. For that Gardner uses analogies, the second step in the process. Analogies help us link the unknown with the known; we learn about the new by making connections to what we already understand. We can see an analogy to evolution in the way that a character matures in a book or changes in the course of a film. The way a river adapts over time to its changing landscape is another analogy that can easily be understood. There is a caution to using analogies, however, in that not all the parallels are helpful or even true.

Now we come to the crucial educational question: How can knowledge of individual differences (MI) be used to convey the core ideas in a reliable and thorough manner? How can we tailor multiple approaches to a common core so that each student understands the material in the way best suited for that person?

Gardner puts it this way: “The key step to approaching the core is the recognition that a concept can only be well understood . . . . if an individual is capable of representing that core in more than one way, indeed in several ways (Gardner, 1999, p. 163).” We know a thing well if we can explain it several different ways.

What would it take for a learner to grasp a core idea in this way? First, it takes a significant amount of time (think depth rather than coverage). Second, the teacher needs to portray the topic in a variety of ways—hands-on, social, aesthetic—so all facets can be enjoyed and understood. There are multiple ways in to the cave for those coming to the entrance from different locations. And finally, it’s helpful if the students have a number of ways to express their understanding and application of the ideas. For one it might be an essay exam, for another a presentation, and for still another a demonstration in front of the class. We learn by doing, said Dewey, and Gardner would agree.

As attractive as this may be, one can hear the sighs. How would you teach this way to 80 or 100 students? Who could keep up with the grading? Who has time to individualize a course for each student? Gardner makes reference to technologies that can help tremendously, but he’s not naïve about the effort involved. Yet, educators are constantly tinkering with the process, he says, because they fervently believe—as he does—that education must ultimately enhance human understanding and help to ‘chart the human possibilities.’ Wouldn’t that be worth working for? Maybe, just maybe, an understanding of core ideas in this way could mean a more intelligent and humane commentary after the news of the day.

You think?

References:
Gardner, Howard (1999) in Reigeluth, Charles M. (Editor). Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Vol. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
General information and a synopsis of Gardner’s work can be found at Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008) 'Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences', The Encyclopedia of Informal Education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm.

Five Things for the First Week

1. Introduce yourself to the class. Let them know how you prefer to be addressed (first name or last name prefaced with Dr., Professor, Mr. or Ms.). Share a bit about yourself, your educational background, where you grew up, your interests and passions. Above all, share your enthusiasm for your discipline and for teaching.
2. Introduce the syllabus and explain the learning objectives of the course. Go over course requirements and give estimates on the workload. Invite students to stop by your office and to post questions on the course discussion board.
3. Gather information about the students in your class. You can learn a lot from a questionnaire handed out in class or completed online. Ask students for: name (what they prefer to be called), hometown, campus address, email address, phone numbers and how they prefer to be contacted, year in school, participation in campus clubs and activities, chosen major. You may also want to know what courses they have taken already in this field, other courses they are taking this semester, reasons for enrolling in this course, career plans, hobbies and interests, and jobs/internships completed. Some faculty have asked other questions such as: How do you learn best? What do you most want to know about this course? Where do you feel strongest in preparation for this course and where do you feel the need for improvement? What do you expect to do with what you learn in this course? Some teachers ask students to write a paragraph about themselves and attach a photo. This can be emailed or printed out and brought to class within the first week of the course.
4. Learn students’ names. When you call roll the first day, ask them to correct your pronunciation and how they would like to be addressed. If you have small classes of 20-30 consider calling roll for the first few sessions. Try to call upon students using their names in the first week or so of discussions. If you make a mistake it can be a learning experience for the class and for you—and provide a laugh as well.
5. Introduce students to each other. Have students introduce themselves to the person next to them and then each pair introduces each other to another pair. Everyone should leave the first week of class knowing at least two other students.

Derived from Davis, Barbara. (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publ.