Friday, July 17, 2020

And We Wonder Why Students Aren't "Motivated"

"Seize the day!" It's one of those idioms we use to motivate ourselves, simple enough to say, but not always so easy to do. "Smile!" "Look on the bright side!" "Think positive!" Most of us know not to say these things to other people. Not only is it unsolicited advice which is rarely welcome, but it's advice that's impossible to accept when you're feeling insecure, unhappy, or depressed. Indeed, it tends to sound like scolding when even the most well-intended persons says, "Make those lemons into lemonade!" 

These idioms are perhaps somewhat more effectively applied too oneself. At least once a day, I urge myself to, "Buck up!" or remind myself, "This is the day you've been waiting for!" I'm not always capable of sparking the desired motivation, but every now and then I'll hit myself at just the right moment, typically one of privileged self-pity, and it gets me going for an hour or a day. But I've come to realize that if I'm counting on cliches to get me through, there is either something fundamentally wrong with what I'm trying to do or with myself. And more often than not, the thing I'm trying to cajole myself through is "necessary" work that is, for me, devoid of meaning.

One of the bits of common wisdom that is trotted out for those who would defend traditional schooling is that children need to learn to do things they don't want to do, which is why "desk work" is so important, why remaining still and quiet for long periods of time is essential, and why play should be kept to a minimum in favor of "instructional time." This is what life is like, or so their reasoning goes, and the kids need to get used to it. It's a harsh, unnecessary lesson, because in the end, no one ever "gets used to" being forced to labor at work that is devoid of meaning: we either rebel or we fall into behavior patterns that look from the outside a lot like depression, a mental illness that has, not incidentally, risen sharply among children in recent decades as we've aggressively stripped our schools of more and more meaning, replacing it with tests and grades and desk time.

And we wonder why students aren't "motivated." It's an entire sub-industry. I recall school hallways lined with motivational posters, "Hang in there!" and "Be your best!" and the like. The internet is full of advice for motivating students, workshops about it, even entire books. If only we could get the kids motivated then they will consume this curriculum with the relish it deserves. The curriculum is rarely questioned, after all it was developed by big brain adults who certainly know what all kids need. It's these damn kids these days who have a motivation problem.

The problem is never the kids. The problem is a curriculum that is devoid of meaning, and it's devoid of meaning because the children have no choice in the matter: this is the crap we've decided you need to learn, or rather, this is the work you have to do so get motivated

I'll never forget randomly meeting a teacher of one of my friend's kids. I knew him be a boy of passions. Whenever I saw him, he would enthuse about outer space or his electric trains. As he got older he became a collector of knives and loved nothing more than to set out a careful display of his hardware, complete with a lecture on the proper use and care of each. He went deeply into music for a time, teaching himself the guitar. As he got older, he got into bicycles, building new ones from old parts. He always had something going on in that wonderful, curious brain of his. When I told this teacher I knew his student, he said to me, with a worried look on his face, "That kid has motivation problems." I then argued the boy's case, telling this teacher about the kid I know. The teacher brightened, "I had no idea. I wish he'd open up to me!"

Some weeks later, I shared this story with the boy. He grimaced. I said in defense of the teacher, "I just think he doesn't know the real you." The boy answered, "I don't want my teachers to know anything about me. If they know what I like, they'll use it against me." He explained, "Whenever teachers know what a kid likes, they try to take it away and use it as, like, a reward for good grades or something." 

Like I said, he is a smart kid. Teachers stuck with curricula that is devoid of meaning are forever seeking ways to motivate children. The most ham-fisted of them resort to things like withholding recess or extracurriculars or art or music in an attempt to use them as carrots in their never-ending quest for motivation.

It's a cruel game we play with children who are born motivated, who don't need sloganeering or tricks or threats in order to find this world full of meaning and worthy of their passionate interest. When children are free to choose, to pursue what genuinely interests them, what is meaningful to them, motivation is never a problem.


The countdown has begun for The Play First Summit! Please join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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