bored female student

To Motivate Students, Honor Their Natural Curiosity

I still remember the first time someone told me that part of my job description as a teacher was to “be inspiring.” In my sarcastic imagination, I waved a magic wand to bestow curiosity on the apathetic. Though I valued inspiration, it didn’t seem fair that I should be expected to motivate students who weren’t curious by nature. After all, I was a teacher, not an entertainer.

I figured that my job was to explain things, assign work, and measure students’ progress. At least that’s how I remembered it being when I was a student. But the role of teacher as information-provider has shifted. Today, it is more important to help students access and process information.

Today, we also expect teachers to play a role in social-emotional growth, such as understanding how to motivate students. Research shows that curiosity helps learners understand complex ideas. We also remember more of the things we learn when curious. Unfortunately, research also shows that curiosity wanes as children progress through school.

I still haven’t figured out how to bottle curiosity and hand it off to my students. But somewhere along the way, I realized some of my habits and practices might actually be doing the opposite. Here are three teaching habits that can actually decrease student motivation, along with a few suggestions for how to avoid these traps.

Motivate Students by Keeping Expectations Reasonable

This post is as much confession as suggestion, and I’ll admit to having committed curiosity-killers at some point. As a student, I remembered being bored when work was too easy. When I became a teacher, I wanted to protect my students from such boredom. Many colleagues suggested I “set the bar high,” and that “students will rise to the occasion! I was only too receptive to such advice, as it matched so well with what I wanted to believe.
I gave too much homework. I made quizzes that lasted longer than a period. I let students retake tests and rewrite papers, and used that policy as a license to give out low grades. After all, the point was for them to get better, so if they start with an ‘A’ why would they revise?

High-achieving studentTo my strongest students, these intellectual challenges were a breath of fresh air. Those kids who didn’t have to try (because the work was too easy) became my most eager students.

Some challenges even worked for a wide range of students. My 5th and 6th graders loved taking part in student-led Harkness discussions. These discussions take a lot of maturity, and my students rose to the challenge. But the demands in that case were social-emotional, rather than academic.

Unfortunately, not all of the challenges I came up with were right for everyone. Some students struggled to keep up even before they got to my class. But it was all-too-easy to overlook any evidence to the contrary. If students became frustrated, I thought they needed to try harder. After all, most students were doing fine. But the rest became less and less curious as the year went on.

Solution: Formative Assessment and Differentiation

Looking back, I was probably right to question the “teach to the middle” strategy. My students did have a wide range of abilities, but by “teaching above the middle,” I was just shuffling the neglect. The real solution to supporting diverse learners is differentiation. And good differentiation requires at least some objective formative assessment.

Nothing prevented me from setting different learning goals for different students. I eventually developed better assessments, which provided me detailed information about students’ abilities. I also developed systems that allowed me to respond to what I learned about them. Leveraging technology helped me do so without working 90 hours a week.

While high expectations can be toxic to curiosity, the opposite can be just as dangerous.

2. Set Your Expectations Too Low

I want you to pause for a minute and think of a yellow fruit. Take your time. Next, see if you can figure out how much you would have if you had 3 dollars and earned 3 more dollars. Have you got it?

That snippet of low expectations was probably enough to get an eye roll or two. Now imagine answering questions that are beneath you for months or years on end. Imagine having to feign interest in lectures you’ve heard a hundred times.

When we underestimate someone’s intelligence, we induce emotions ranging from indifference to contempt. None of these set the stage for positive teacher-learner relationships. We often don’t realize when we are teaching beneath our students’ abilities. In fact, if everyone gets an ‘A’ on a test or project, it might seem that we, and our students, are doing just fine.

Solution: Productive Struggle

It’s easy for low expectations to go undetected. As long as we don’t exceed students’ abilities, the results tend to look the same. If everyone succeeds, we’ll only know that the work wasn’t too hard. The only way to really tell if a child is being challenged, is to push them a bit outside their comfort zone. The goal of formative assessment is to target instruction at the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

This term, coined by Lev Vygotsky, refers to the edge of understanding. This is the place where we can scaffold learning that would otherwise be out of a learner’s reach. Often, we instinctively avoid the ZPD for fear of failure.
The “I Do, We Do, You Do” model is often applied (incorrectly) to shield students from the challenge of inquiry learning. If “I do” everything first, then you won’t have to face the discomfort of figuring things out. When used this way, we aren’t releasing responsibility at all.

Fisher and Frey’s Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

While there is a time and place for explicit instruction, it has several drawbacks. Students learn to repeat what they’ve been told rather than to solve problems. This has a negative impact on both curiosity and confidence. Instead, students need to learn (at least in part) through discovery. They also need to apply what they’ve learned in novel situations.

Embracing productive struggle also requires a classroom culture that values mistakes. Celebrate “beautiful mistakes” that involve intellectual risk and create learning opportunities. Not all mistakes are beautiful (some are just sloppy). Make sure your students know (and value) the difference.

3. Overuse Rewards and Punishment

Rewards and punishment might seem like the fabric that holds society together. If you work hard, you’ll earn respect and wealth; if you commit a crime, you’ll go to jail. Most of us were raised on incentives, and it seems natural to mold future generations with carrots and sticks.

While it is impossible to eliminate rewards and punishment, it is easy to go overboard. The essence of behavior modification (incentives) is manipulation. You don’t want to eat your spinach, so I threaten you with punishment (Or I offer you cake as a reward).

Studies have shown that incentives lose effectiveness over time. In fact, when people are incentivized for something they enjoy, their enjoyment fades. Eventually, they need the incentive to do what they once enjoyed. Ever wonder why young children seem to enjoy reading more than teenagers? The long-term effects of incentives offer some clues.

graph that shows declining interest in reading for fun as students get older
from Scholastic.com

Research also shows that incentives are only effective for low level tasks. Rewards can get people to put items on shelves or write spelling words 20 times, but not much more. They have little to no effect on complex problem solving, innovation, or creativity.

Solution: Shift the Locus of Control

Locus of control refers to how we view the reasons for our success and failure. When we act based on incentives, our internal motivation declines. After all, my parent/teacher/boss decides what I should focus on and whether I did a good job. When we enjoy what we do and reflect on our own performance, we become agents of our own success.

student drawing demonstrating "Locus of Control"

Look for little ways to shift control from an external to an internal locus. While we can’t just let children focus on Instagram or baseball, there is room to combine their interests with what we want them to learn. Instagram does involve writing and baseball statistics involve some complicated math, after all.

Reflection is another powerful tool for internalizing motivation. Our evaluation of a child’s performance may be more accurate, but it’s less effective in helping them grow. Children should reflect on their performance, and discuss those reflections with us. We can help them understand where we agree or disagree with their self-assessment. This increases internal motivation and helps them understand how to improve.
I know this list is far from exhaustive (I planned to include ‘5 ways’ but this was getting a bit long. “Busy Work” and “Making Assumptions About Them” will have to wait for another post).


What do you think?

I look forward to hearing your stories, comments, and questions relating to curiosity. Post them below or on the Room to Discover Facebook page.

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