Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting students to appreciate what's taught in school

Photo by [a]clark
One of my favorite questions a student can ask is "why are we doing this?" If students aren't shown the practical value in what they're learning, many of them will tune out. We can have the most organized curriculum, gather fascinating resources, and create an optimal learning atmosphere, but if students don't value what's going on in the classroom, it's all for nothing. That's the problem that Jere Brophy addressed in his 2008 article.

Brophy railed against curriculm that is mile-wide but inch-deep, and rightly pointed out that a lot of students aren't engaged because much of school learning doesn't have "significant life application value." Brophy notes that John Dewey saw it coming long ago – that "most K-12 content originated as practical knowledge derived through situational problem solving, but as it got systematized within what became the disciplines, it got formulated more abstractly and separated from its situated origins." Therefore, although teachers may see the value in what we do in K-12, it's not always so obvious to our students.

Brophy goes on: "If a curriculum strand has significant value for learners, it will be because its content network is structured around big ideas that provide a basis for authentic applications to life outside of school." Similarly, in How to Get – and Keep – Someone's Attention, a 7/25/12 Time magazine article, Annie Murphy Paul advises us to bring our ideas down to earth by "explaining how they connect to your listeners' lives" if we want people to listen. The same holds true for the classroom.

When students are autonomously motivated to engage with K-12 content, they do so voluntarily because they see good reasons for doing so and then activate schema networks for valued purposes. Brophy makes a point of saying that it's not just simply a matter of connecting with students' interests. Instead, he believes that the valuing of school learning begins with curricular aims, an articulation of the knowledge, skills, values, dispositions, and appreciations of what it is being learned. He argues that our curriculum shouldn't just about the what and how, but about why anybody ought to learn it.

The kinds of qualities he emphasizes: absorption, satisfaction, recognition, making meaning, self-expression, self-realization, making connections, achieving insights, and aesthetic appreciation.

Whether it's the subjects I teach or the rewards learners receive, I'm taking a critical look at my own intended outcomes to make sure (in addition to knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions) that I'm including appreciations of why what is being taught is worth learning.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Motivation to learn

Do Badges Kill Motivation, second in a series

Photo by Sloanpix
One of the things that got me delving into this topic is the idea that badges could ruin any intrinsic motivation students have. The idea of intrinsic motivation in school is worth exploring. Whether it's Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory or Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory, I have seen plenty of instances of intrinsic motivation in my career – when a student is completely absorbed in reading a book, when a photographer is shooting a series of portraits in our classroom studio, or when a student writer is putting the finishing touches on a story they care about – yes, I'm happy to report that I've personally seen quite a bit of intrinsic motivation in my time.

What usually happens next, however, is that the bell rings, class ends, and the student reluctantly moves on to the next classroom. I've also been on the other end, for example when student artists trudge into my class after leaving a canvas incomplete in their art class, or when musicians wander in fifteen minutes late because they lost track of time in their band class.

The problem with these examples, unfortunately, is that they don't happen often enough. Maybe other educational sites are full of students who are instrinsically motivated all-day, every day, but in my experience the majority of students are not in the zone the majority of the day.

Jere Brophy (in his book Motivating Students to Learn) argued that intrinsic motivation isn't a realistic model of student motivation anyway, since most educational activities are compulsory, at some point the performance will be evaluated, and often situated in very public settings. Instead Brophy argues that student motivation to learn should be the goal we strive for. He believed that intrinsic motivation refers primarily to the affective experience – enjoyment of the processes involved in engaging in the activity; in contrast, motivation to learn is is more of a cognitive response – attempts to make sense of information and master the skills and habits of mind that the activity develops. He wrote: "it is helpful to view motivation to learn as a schema – a network of connected insights, skills, values, and dispositions that enable students to understand what it means to engage in academic activities with the intention of of accomplishing their learning goals and with awareness of the strategies they use in attempting to do so."

Brophy felt that educators should capitalize on students' existing motivation (for example, the inquiry approach to writing), and also make the best of our opportunities to stimulate and socialize their motivation to learn.

He cites expectancy x value theory as a way of approaching motivation, and by extension I think it's a way to approach using badges in education. The expectancy x value model of motivation holds that the effort we're willing to expend on a task is a product of (a) the degree to which we expect to be able to perform the task successfully if we apply ourselves (and the rewards therein), and (b) the degree to which we value both the task and the rewards of that task. It's considered a product because no effort will be invested if one factor is missing entirely.

So what does this have to do with badges? I'll use the idea of "basic or foundational" badges to illustrate. On the one hand, if students recognize the value but don't feel capable of meeting the demands of the task, they're likely to do things to protect their ego (disassemble, in Brophy's words). If on the other hand they're confident in their abilities to do the task but don't value it, they're likely to just go through the motions (evade). Engagement happens when students see value in the task and are reasonably confident in their ability to succeed at that task.

I think I understand the expectancy part of the equation well enough. After all, most career educators are able to choose tasks that are within our students Zone of Proximal Development, but it's the value part of the equation that's a little trickier for me. How do we get students to value learning?

Brophy's 2008 article, "Developing Students Appreciation for What is Taught in Schools," speaks to that. More on that next time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Do badges kill motivation?

As Paul Allison started talking about incorporating badges into Youth Voices, it has me thinking more about the gamification of education in general and badges in particular, and what effect they might have on students' motivation. On the one hand part of me says that badges could stifle students' intrinsic motivation, that students might focus more on getting badges than on learning, and that this extrinsic motivation will ultimately have negative consequences. But on the other hand, it's hard to disagree with the rationale that badges are about "helping people of all ages learn and display 21st century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, and find new life pathways." And the more I learn about the winners of this year's DML competition, the more of a believer I become. But still I wonder....

Even the people at Mozilla Open Badges on the FAQ section on their wiki are asking "how does introducing badges affect learners' motivations? If learners were already intrinsically motivated, how do we avoid 'crowding out' those motivations with an extrinsic badge system?"

For the next few days I'm on a quest of my own. I'll be reading and writing about what educational research has to say about motivation and how that might inform the use of badges in the classroom, I'll be talking to some people who know more about these topics than I do, and I'll be browsing websites like and the gamification wiki

In the meantime I'm wondering what people think about badges in education: what effect do badges have on learners' motivation?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bringing the White Paper into the classroom

Lately I've been thinking about a genre to include in my English classes for next year - the White Paper.

This idea is a continuation of an earlier post I wrote about blogging your research as a way to breathe life into the traditional research paper as it's commonly taught in schools – an attempt to reconcile two genres, blogging/connected writing and the research paper. I've noticed that when students write interest-driven posts on Youth Voices, they participate in numerous discussions over the course of a term that touch on a recurring theme that matters to them. What if students periodically were to pull back and compose a white paper on their enduring interests? Here's a definition of a government white paper that I came across: "White Papers have tried to perform the dual role of presenting firm government policies while at the same time inviting opinions upon them." In my mind this is good research because, while it may be finished, it's not yet done. Good research continually informs practice and vice versa. What if our students explored this "dual role"?

This seems like another type of academic writing that's worth a closer look. The Purdue Online Writing Lab has a section devoted to resources for the White Paper.  

Here are a couple of examples of the kind of research writing I want my students to do this year, White Papers that continue to inform my own teaching and learning: Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture and Living and Learning with New Media.