Saturday, December 29, 2007


I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about what my next post ought to be and I was weighing my options between a few choices, one of which was a lengthy rant about SATs, standardized testing and No Child Left Behind but I decided not to be such a Scrooge in the holiday season. No doubt by the time some dismal day in March arrives, you'll hear an earful on those other things.

I have been trying to answer the question, "What motivates students to learn?" This is the million dollar question that often connects to other educational conversation from measuring student progress, to curriculum and assessment. I started trying to answer the question by looking in two places. One, when I was a student, what courses, teachers or projects interested me and why. Two, what do students seem to be intrinsically motivated to do in our school.

Looking back at my own educational experiences, I can outline several examples of my own intrinsic motivation (extrinsic examples like parents expecting good grades or bribes of Driver's Education aside). I was very motivated in my music classes. I was involved in band, jazz band, marching band, brass quintet and even participated in several regional and state band competitions and music summer camp (yes I was that much of a geek). What motivated me to get this involved? Several things. One, it aligned with my "social network" (I had many friends in music who shared the same interests). Two, learning was important because it had a real audience. If you thought you'd get away with not practicing in a five person music group, you quickly learn that you can't hide in a performance, even behind the tuba. There are many other experiences I can recall were I was truly intrinsically motivated to learn (a mock trial in Social Studies for example) and I realized that the common factor was a real audience, not even necessarily a social group I was with.

When looking at courses and experiences where students in our school show a true motivation to learn, I hear of things like vocational programs (nursing, carpentry, automotive) music programs, athletics, and service projects like our students going to New Orleans to help Habitat for Humanity build houses for Katrina victims. These all have a REAL purpose, a real audience.

Most often in education the audience our students work with is an audience of one-- the teacher. When you consider this, there is no wonder that the motivation is low. The teacher creates the assignment, stipulates how you will complete it, usually gives you the materials to do it, and is the only one who will be reading it, scoring it and giving feedback. I cringe when I see students filling up my trashcan with their writing papers I have just handed back, but I understand why. You do what the teacher wants you to, you say what they want to hear, and if you are close enough, then you'll get the grade and forget about it tomorrow. This is not the kind of learning model that works and we know that.

This is why it is important for teachers to try opening up student work to an audience. The more authentic the better. These can be through blogs, wikis, videos and webpages, but, as some of the examples above prove, they don't have to involve technology.

So I've resolved to try this in some of my courses. Here's how. In my video production course, we will be working with the language classes to help them create a video postcard to their sister school in Lac-Megantic, Canada. Each group will get the same video footage (scripted by the language classes) and their responsibility will be to edit the video in a way that best suits the purpose. In the end all videos will be shown in the language classes and the class will vote on which one will get sent out to represent them.

In my writing and literature classes, I'm going to try to find ways to post student work for comment by other students, have them podcast and comment on each other's work and I've even tried to have a book discussion using Voicethread.

I hope to continue sharing this implementation so that I can document this journey and gain insight from reader comments as well (HINT HINT).

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