Young children are not passive learners. They are active, they explore their world to their capacity to do so. They taste things like dirt. They imitate what they see others doing. They experiment with sounds and words. They learn to walk after falling however many times; yet they get up and try again.
A young child will look behind the TV to see where the people on the screen are, as they try to make sense of their environment. They ‘read’ story books by turning pages and retelling the narrative, when we know that they are creating the narrative as they go along.
The Ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; and involve me and I’ll understand.” This was further modified by Silberman, in 1996 as “What I hear, I forget; What I hear and see, I remember a little; What I hear, see and ask questions about or discuss with someone else, I begin to understand; What I hear, see, discuss and do, I acquire knowledge and skill; What I teach others, I master.”
We want our students to be engaged in their learning because we want them to achieve a level of mastery. Most teacher-directed learning over the years with the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ is passive learning.
True learning, however, requires the child to listen and listening is an active learned skill. It is physical. For example, it requires components of the auditory system, it requires the brain as the receptor and processor of the information, the eyes to read the facial expressions of the presenter of the information. It requires the student’s active participation, and it can be tiring. As a parent or teacher, we can tell if our child is engaged in the activity at hand; we can tell if a child is listening.
Phillip Schlechty, an education researcher, speaker, and school-improvement advocate, suggested that children will generally fall into one of five categories: Engaged, Strategically Compliant, Ritually Compliant, Retreatist and Rebellious (click on the video below for detailed definitions of these categories).
A well-managed classroom will have higher percentages of Strategically Compliant and Ritually Compliant children and much smaller percentages of Retreatist and Engaged students.
The Pathological classroom will have few engaged children and high percentages of all others in equal measure, while in an Engaged classroom you will have the greatest percentage of children engaged in their learning, a high percentage of those classified as Strategically Compliant and much smaller percentages of Ritually Compliant and Retreatist, and none that are considered Rebellious.
The tendency in most schools is to work towards a well-managed classroom. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that students are learning. It is also easy to work towards compliance; after all, we have been told all our lives that compliance is a good thing. We are rewarded for being compliant; gold stars, rewards for best-behaved, well-mannered, being a good friend… Yet, when we work towards compliance we don’t get anywhere near full engagement.
At Moriah, with an increased focus on the individual through the inquiry learning process, students are engaged in their learning for the greater part of the day.
Students who are compliant, strategically or ritualistically, are governed by extrinsic factors, such as grades, stickers, rewards, or the quiz coming up tomorrow.
Students in an engaged learning environment are intrinsically motivated and have a desire to actively learn, create and contribute to the experience.
W.B.Yeats said, “Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire”.
An aim of every parent and educator should be to build in our children the concept of lifelong learning, to light the fire of doing one’s best for the sake of being the best you can be, and not for some artificial reward earned along the way.
“We are all motivated by different things – mostly external factors, to be fair – but it’s the desire to keep trying when no reward is offered that makes intrinsic motivation such a powerful force, because at that point, shortcuts don’t exist. Quality is the only player.” [ii]
Ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students
Saga Briggs, Managing Editor of InformED, suggests 25 Ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students. [iii] Amongst those she offers:
- Make students feel like education is a choice, not a requirement. As simple as it sounds, remind students that they are making the right choice by working hard. Education opens doors and gives them more options in the long-term.
- For learning management, expect self-direction, not compliance. Motivating students to follow the rules by threatening or goading won’t help your students in the long run. Help them become more self-directed, so that they end up complying as a result of their own genuine efforts.
- Visualise and Conquer. Have your students visualise a moment in their lives when they felt very proud of themselves for an accomplishment. Then let them loose on a task.
- Make every student feel capable. This may be a simple point, but it’s surely one of the most important. Some students feel incapable of completing a task before they even try it. The power of “You can do it” has perhaps been diluted over the years. Try “You’re capable,” which speaks not only to the task at hand but to the student’s sense of self-worth.
- Enable learners to believe that their work will lead to powerful effects. Students won’t remember everything you teach them – such is the limited capacity of the human brain. But the point is not to memorize every fact and concept. The point of school and homework is to cultivate an academic work ethic of sorts, so that someday, that million-dollar idea won’t be so hard to realize.
- Encourage students to compete against themselves. Just as a runner, jumper, or thrower not only competes against others but also tries to achieve a new personal record, intrinsically motivated students are always hoping to better themselves.
- Talk about it. Have your students heard of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? Simply making them aware of the difference might spark some useful discussion or thought.
- Model intrinsic behaviour yourself. Educators’ demonstration of how they approach work, their expectations, values, and beliefs can be transmitted to students and facilitate their intrinsic motivation.
About the Author
Donna Delbaere is Co-acting College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.