As we sit back and reflect on our discussions from parent-teacher interviews, an important dimension of our work with students going forward must focus on their motivation – probably the most important and nuanced dimension of how children learn. According to retired teacher Diana Laufenberg, this most important aspect of learning depends on these four big things: Choice, Challenge, Collaboration, and Control.
When we sit down at a restaurant and the menu has a dizzying array of options, it can seem like choice is not a good thing! After all, there must be limits or else our human brains will not be able to make a selection in a reasonable amount of time. When it comes to student mastery and assessment, however, being able to choose is an empowering license to take responsibility for one’s own learning. Providing choice should be a go-to strategy for creating situations in which students can be motivated to learn. Whether it’s how to communicate learning or how to think about learning, we can all agree that having some control over how we spend our intellectual time is very important. I can’t imagine any university student not having some options in a final exam when it comes to the big essay question!
In terms of providing students (or anyone really!) with an appropriate challenge, the Goldilocks Principle is the best way to go if we are establishing the conditions for motivation to occur in our classrooms. Not too hard, not too easy…just right. In educational terms, this is known as the Zone of Proximal Development. It represents the space between what a learner is capable of doing unsupported and what the learner cannot do even with support. Providing our students with a task that they know they can do with little effort is not motivating, nor is the task that they know is out of their range. Finding that sweet spot of challenge is, well, challenging. We strive to think about each project that we do with students as a way to reach slightly beyond what they are comfortable doing.
And our children are social creatures (…like all humans!). While the idea of learning alone has its place, opportunities to learn with others have an incredible motivating impact on most kids. Sharing begets more sharing. Hearing from students that have a different life experience or knowledge base can enlighten others. Connecting with others around common learning concepts helps students understand where they are in the landscape of understanding. Collaboration isn’t just group projects. Turn and talk (elbow partners), speed learning, feedback protocols, academic puzzles, and collaborative problem-solving are a small number of ways we incorporate “social learning” to motivate our students.
And lastly, control. This is the most difficult of the four to address in the classroom. Balancing the need to provide a productive work environment, while allowing some student control can be challenging. We strive to find purposeful and common sense ways that limit the inhibition of student ideas or movement, while working to adopt those that might shift to more student control. My favourite way of stating this is to grant considerable freedom, without undue license. This recognizes that spaces where students feel more autonomy become spaces where they will exhibit more motivation for learning. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by shifting from doing things to and for our students to doing things by and with our students. This is sometimes described as a “coffee shop effect” (recognizing that many older students and adults work better in a coffee shop than at the office or at their desk). Controlling our space can have a direct effect on our motivation and it can work for kids, too.
As we re-group and press on this term, let’s support and facilitate the 4- Cs and foster lifelong motivation among our kids.
When kids want to learn, they press on toward the prize!
Ric Anderson, Head of School