Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To ‘Motivate’ the Unmotivated To Learn

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 24, 2011 5 min read
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Cyndy Woods-Wilson asked:

How can we “motivate” the unmotivated to learn something new?

It’s a great question, and is surely one often on the minds of educators everywhere. I especially liked how Cyndy put the word “motivate” in quotation marks, because it reflects what I learned during my 19 year community organizing career prior to becoming a teacher and which I shared in an excerpt from my book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves. that Education Week Teacher published earlier this year:

One of the lessons community organizers learn is that you might be able to threaten, cajole, badger, or bribe someone to do something over the short-term, but getting someone to do something beyond a very, very short timeframe is a radically different story. Organizers believe that you cannot really motivate anybody else. However, you can help people discover what they can use to motivate themselves.

Instead of just sharing what I have to say on the topic, I invited two of the most well-known researchers on motivation and authors of bestselling books - Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, to respond to Cyndy’s question.

Here is how Daniel Pink responded:

I’m not sure there’s any single bullet solution to this problem. But there are a couple of things teachers could do -- both of which take on the issue of “why.” The first 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? I’m not suggesting turning teachers into therapists - but trying to surface the source of the demotivation might help us remove it as an obstacle.

Another is to examine “why” from a different angle. I’m convinced that some students aren’t motivated to learn particular subjects because they have no idea why they’re learning it. Authority figures tell them how to do something - but never explain why they’re doing it in the first place. Connecting today’s material to what they’ve already learned, what’s happening in the wider world, what the student is already interested can offer context that’s otherwise missing. Again, there are no easy answers to this one. But these might help a little.

I agree with Daniel that getting to the “why?” is critical, and that needs to be a primary question in the teacher’s head. It may not, however, be the question we want to ask students, because much of the time they may not really have an answer to that question. But even though we have to keep in mind Dan’s caution about not being therapists, I think we do need to dig through questions like “When are times you can remember you were excited about being at school? What was going on then?”

Daniel’s point on relevance is perfectly timed with a recently published study. Researchers had students write a paragraph after science lessons explaining how they thought they could apply what they had just learned to their lives. Writing one-to-eight of these during a semester led to positive student learning gains.

During the last school year, I tried something similar a couple of times with my students, including asking them to write if and how they thought learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy would be useful to them. Based on Daniel’s response, the study, and last year’s positive experiences, I definitely plan on implementing this strategy more extensively.

Dan Ariely taped a short video response to Cyndy’s question:

I’m particularly struck by what Dan Ariely calls “The Ikea Effect” - people value something more because of the labor they invested into creating it. This idea was reinforced by a study published last month that showed that students tended to be less interested in learning new things if they felt that their teacher told them everything they needed to know. Some ways of encouraging students to develop this sense of ownership could be by:

* using inductive learning and teaching by providing students examples from which they can create a pattern and form a concept or rule. This is different from teaching deductively, which first provides the rule and concept and has students practice it.

* cooperative learning strategies, such as problem-based or project-based learning.

* providing students’ with choices about their class assignments.

Many readers provided thoughtful and insightful responses in last Friday’s post announcing this question. Here’s a very small sampling from a few of them, and I’d strongly encourage you visit the comments on that post to read them in their entirety:

Teacher Leaders Network leader Renee Moore: When this question comes up in school, what we’re often really asking is how can we get students to want to learn what we want them to learn-when we want them learn it- the way we want them to learn it?.... Give students a preliminary taste of what they’re going to “learn,” like a trailer for a movie. Show, concretely if possible, what this particular phase of learning will enable them to do.

meremagee: Investing students in classroom goals and collaborating with students and families to set individual goals has been really effective for me, and I saw this method do wonders for self-esteem in internal motivation!

JanRobertson: Find something that the student is passionate about, and let them teach or share it informally with someone else or if you think they can handle it, a small group, even if it has nothing to do with your curriculum. Once they’ve made a connection with other students, build on that relationship.

lauwailap1: Build the relationship first and understand “their world”, then re-position your content, knowledge and skills to make the learning relevant for them.

John Bennett: Teachers AND parents can create the environment that supports improvement of the students’ intrinsic motivation. The environment that succeeds supports student autonomy, mastery, and purpose - Daniel Pink’s three elements.

It’s not possible to give this topic justice in just a blog post, and I’m sure it will a topic of future ones. In the meantime, though, there are other useful resources available.

Please leave comments on this post adding your own answers to the question of how to “motivate” the unmotivated to learn and/or share your reactions to today’s responses. And, again, take a minute to look at responses left last Friday when I announced this question.

Also, consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

Thanks again to Cyndy for posing this week’s question, and to Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, and all the readers who took the time to answer her!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.