Aug 3, 2015

Motivation: This is Water

I now have about month of summer between me and what was without question the most challenging year of my teaching career. To put it bluntly: this year was emotionally exhausting, physically draining, and forced me to drastically lower the bar for what a successful, productive teaching day looked like. So, I'm writing this post at least in part to try to take a step back and wrap my head around what went on this year, and hopefully raise that bar once again.

I've taught science in private schools for nearly a decade, but this was my first year in a New York City charter school. Setting aside the politics of charters for a moment (this post won't be about charter schools, but there are interesting perspectives here, here, and here), this school gave me a chance to refocus my private school experience on students from a very different background. In this sense, my year was a rousing success – I floundered and drowned and through drowning got some much needed perspective on what I'd taken for granted in those very privileged environments where I'd previously worked. While it seems obvious to me now, I don't think I could have identified this a year ago – everything that I try to do in my classroom hinges on something we rather unassumingly call motivation.

If you haven't ever seen it, or if it's just been a while, take a moment and watch or read the late David Foster Wallace's amazing 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. Like the fish who asks, "What the hell is water?" I as a private school teacher had no perspective on the fluid of hyper-motivation that I was swimming in. Only now, having tried swimming in some very different water, have I begun to get some perspective on the very thing that buoyed up those hours of lesson planning and worksheet formatting and helped my students (and me, of course) feel successful.

Foster Wallace uses the water analogy to suggest that "the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about", and I believe that it's helpful to see the landscape of motivation in a classroom through this lens. Some of my students this year were quite driven academically  motivated in a similar way to many of the students I'd encountered at past school, and these students tended to earn straight A's in all their classes. But the majority of my students felt very little motivation to do the things I suggested would help them succeed  or, at least, they expected this motivation to originate in me, their teacher. If your response to this realization is, "Sounds like you're just describing good teaching!" you're not wrong. But my goal in writing this post is to ask why the motivational tools that have been successful for me in the past all of a sudden fell so flat, and ultimately to think more carefully about what can replace them in this new environment.

It struck me early on that, at this school, one extremely effective technique for motivating students was to earn their devotion – to convince students to work for their teacher out of love and allegiance. It makes sense to me how this would emerge in a "high-stakes" climate (like the middle schools in my charter network), where consequences for poor performance on a state-standardized test will often affect the teacher more concretely than the student taking the test. This year I've been envious of the knack that some of my colleagues have for earning students' devotion. At the end of the year, after regular classes had ceased, two ninth grade math teachers hosted a jam-packed (voluntary) review session for the Algebra I Common Core Regents test. Peeking my head in, I noticed that a few students who had barely eked out a passing grade in my class had made the choice to be there, working on math when they could have been doing anything else. This says something spectacular about those teachers.

For me, earning devotion from students through charm and affection has never come naturally. I admit that I have some work to do to hone these chops and give myself the power to call upon this technique, but the technique itself also raises some deeply problematic implications for students down the road. A few months into this year, a colleague overheard one of my students say, "I heard that in college, teachers don't care about you and don't even know your name. There's no way I'm going to do work for any of those teachers..." If success is going to be sustainable, don't students need to be working for themselves, rather than working for someone else? What does it mean to work for oneself? Sure, it seemed like my students at previous schools were self-motivated, but perhaps this was just a product of extrinsic motivators more deeply intertwined with life at school, around their neighborhood, and in their home – the water in which they swim?

Theorists in the field of language education have categorized motivation into instrumental and integrative factors. Instrumental motivation is based in the knowledge that learning the language will unlock doors to specific desired outcomes, like obtaining a specific job, while integrative motivation is based in a personal desire to be a part of the community that speaks that language. What can I as a science teacher take away from this research? Can I make posters around the room that list starting salaries for jobs that require a STEM degree? Can I guide students in a conversation about how the tools in this class can help them break down barriers that may stand in their way of accessing those positions? (More on this in a later post, but my hope is to create a scaled-down version of Moses Rifkin's curriculum on Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom to strengthen the connection between science learning and empowerment.) Can I structure class in a way that regularly rewards students who have shown mastery of skills with more interesting, more challenging hands-on work – to motivate more students who haven't yet mastered those skills to prioritize their own practice and unlock these activities? Most importantly, can I redirect my attention as a curriculum developer to things that focus on my students' motivation, rather than focusing on elements of my course that are easiest to see and talk about.1

For now, this is my best stab at thinking about what it means to work for yourself. This question is obviously important but deeply complicated, and I imagine I'll be puzzling through it for years to come, but some challenges inherent in the question are obvious. If anyone is going to be convinced that the promise of a $60k starting salary ten years down the road is worth the choice to prioritize tonight's homework, they need to first believe that this path isn't just an illusion in the first place. I fear that many of my students don't believe this path actually exists for them, and the reasons for this go far beyond the walls of my classroom and one charter school.

As I think more carefully about what can change next year, I feel confident coming to two conclusions. First, when I or my students fall short of my expectations, it will help me to try to think directly and honestly about what role we as individuals actually played in that failure – how much was it about us fish (me included) and how much was it about the water? Second, while it may be possible to change that water, this change isn't going to come from a better designed worksheet, or a more effective paradigm lab for uncovering Newton's Second Law. My best hope is that it's going to come from giving kids a chance to feel their own inspiration to work through things they find challenging, and experience first-hand that this hard work can actually translate into success.

Some of the most poignant elements of Foster Wallace's speech come when he's describing the choice that we have to see the real emotions and struggles behind the things that seem to be in our way. This past year, there were multiple times daily when I felt the frustration of things in my way. Sometimes I reacted, understandably but unhelpfully, with anger or exasperation. My hope for myself next year is that I too, both at school and in life, can use that mantra to remind myself what I'm actually a part of: This is water... This is water...

1 Language education researchers seem to agree that integrative motivation is a much better predictor of success  that students are most likely to acquire language skills if they "like the people that speak the language, admire the culture, and have a desire to become familiar with or even integrate into the society in which the language is used." (Falk, J. 1978) I can think of my ninth grade physics class as process of learning how to speak a new language of models and representations, and learning to converse and debate through this language. If I want students to learn the language I'm teaching, don't they need to like the people who speak the language? As the only person who speaks the language in the room, I'm basically an ambassador for science... so I'd better be darn likable.

3 Responses so far

  1. Unknown says:


    I found myself pondering some of the same questions after I to, felt like I had the worst year teaching since I left industry for public education 10 years ago.

    I did find some idea in the book: The Eureka Factor, which provides some great ideas for how to get students to 'think' more for themselves. I'm planning to try some of them this coming school year.

  2. JK says:

    Good to hear I'm not alone, Art. (Sad too, of course...)

    I haven't heard of The Eureka Factor, but will check it out. Can you offer any highlights?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have also found the book by Christopher Emdin, "For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood, and the Rest of Y'All Too" to be a helpful and enlightening book. I think for me part of the "water" is that because of being white, I often don't quite know how to honor the strengths of our students who don't seem "motivated"... I am working on it.

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