Student Motivation and Envisioning Success

Johnny is entering the ninth grade in Springfield High School.  Having been historically an “average” B-C student, mathematics has always been exceptionally challenging to him.  During the past summer, his parents arranged for a personal tutor to do one session per week with him.  Also wanting a fresh start of sorts in math going into his new high school, Johnny actually welcomed the opportunity for the one-to-one support. He even happily agreed to cut back on video games to fit in the sessions and also the additional summer assignments provided by his tutor. All in all that summer, he did spend less time playing video games, he improved his math skills with the more personal attention, and he looked forward to beginning his new math class.

Johnny’s new math teacher, Ms. Mathematica, has a reputation.  She is a twenty year veteran in the classroom and she is known for having a tough and very disciplined approach to teaching mathematics. She has even had three students go on to earn doctoral degrees in mathematics and another two of her students actually have gone on to become math teachers themselves.  Ms. Mathematica is one that doesn’t believe in partial credit. Either the entire problem is done correctly or it is wrong.

After a strong first few weeks in class, Johnny soon reverts to old “habits.” Ms. Mathematica’s class is highly structured.  Even when students are working together in groups, they are all expected to be doing the same thing at the same time.  Johnny can often be seen gazing out the classroom window during class.  He hasn’t caused any disruptions during class, but despite Ms. Mathematica’s reminders to stay focused on the work, he has simply lost concentration.

Instead of doing his homework after school, Johnny goes to his room and plays video games.  Interestingly, he is good at one particular game called World of the Sorcerer’s Magic. Typically, he plays for about an hour and a half after school, then breaks to come to dinner. He eats hurriedly, but not fast enough for his parents to tell him to slow down. Throughout dinner he is always just so anxious to get back to playing. Between chatter about the day with his family, his mind is thinking about the maneuvers that will get him to the next level of the game. Because he participated in the family discussion and he didn’t eat too too fast, somehow it doesn’t seem impolite for him to excuse himself to go back to his room to play some more.

So then, where and how did Johnny become more apathetic toward math and more interested in his video game? The answer to both, I believe, is all about motivation, and, more specifically, his ability to envision his own success in each endeavor.

How is the motivation to succeed in math any different that motivation to succeed at video games? The rewards for both seem to be about the same. You don’t ordinarily and immediately win money when you play video games, nor do you if you are good math. You can win praise from your peers for both; I’ve heard just as many students praise a friend for being good at math as I have the same for video games.  Johnny’s not necessarily going to find a nice girlfriend just by virtue of being good at one or the other.

Motivation, by the way, to those outside of the education profession, is THE KEY to learning.  So many education research studies point to motivation as the main factor in student learning, but most of the education world is slow to catch up.

You see, I don’t believe that motivation in this sense is innate or intrinsic.  In fact, anything you’d probably say is intrinsic about motivation is probably due simply to earlier experience and successes.  But, I do believe it is closely linked to vision on the part of the young person. If someone can see themselves succeeding at any task, they can become motivated to achieve.

In video games, players can easily envision success and can also SEE and FEEL evidence of it quickly.  New levels of performance are constantly obtained.  Although people may spend hours trying to get passed that one level, they will continue onto the next because they have done something similar before. Wow, just writing this is bringing me back to the journey to navigate Super Mario Brothers as I did as a kid.

Now let’s take this out of the learning math and video games context and talk about what it looks like in trying to develop one’s ingenuity.  Technology and engineering teachers are among the few in schools that are willing to let students set their own direction for projects.  Ultimately, it works best when students can choose and frame their own projects and constraints.  Choosing and directing projects of their own is about as motivating for young people as it can get.  It’s not uncommon to find a teacher that is encouraging their students to write down information about everyday problems with the hope they can focus on one of them for a class project.

Even if the project work is contrived or set by the teacher, motivation is enhanced because the hands-on nature of the work allows more students the chance to be able to succeed. No matter what the project is, the fact that there are many many different possibilities in terms of how to approach and solve a design problem allows students to see just as many possibilities for success. Even though there may be constraints of the problem to deal with, there are still so many possibilities.

So then, is there any hope for Johnny in Ms. Mathematica’s class?  Where Johnny saw no chance to succeed, his motivation disappeared.  He was feeling some success earlier that summer with his tutor because in that one-to-one situation it was much easier to succeed and in that particular setting the motivation appeared much faster.  But, this is why I try to advocate for learning about technology and engineering and for the development of the ingenuity of our young people. It’s because the motivation that I’ve witnessed students feeling in these settings not only helps them to develop and apply their ingenuity in a real and more motivating context, I’ve also witnessed how it can help students envision success in other school subjects.

So, where we would normally say “he’s got a lack of concentration,” we should be admitting there’s a lack of motivation. And, we’ve got to lose this attitude that all kids should want to learn just so that they can better themselves.  The lack of concentration comes more from the school itself, so then the school itself should take responsibility for the motivation.  Let’s also hope that Johnny is able to feel some success in mathematics by applying it in his technology and engineering class.


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