If ever you get embroiled in a discussion on Learning Styles you may well be confronted with the chestnut of motivation.

Learning styles, it seems to me, are all about motivation and management, and nothing whatsoever to do with learning. There is of course a correlation between learning and motivation but often they get conflated. Much of what goes on in classrooms is predicated on the belief that if kids are sufficiently engaged in an activity, they will learn from it. But it doesn’t take a genius to spot that we can really enjoy something without learning a whole lot from it. This leads us inexorably down the path of ‘dumbing down’ and fun for fun’s sake. As Nuthall says, “Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”

This misunderstanding filters through into how we conduct assessment. When given a test, some students will quietly get on with it, some will be looking busy but not writing very much, some will doodle and others will put their heads of the desk and dribble. Guess which ones will do best on the test? Those pupils who care about doing well will do the best. But what of those pupils who knew what to do to get the answer but didn’t do it? Tests are a very accurate measure of how keen we are on taking tests. They are not that great of measure of what we’ve learned.

So this offers us two choices. We could either forget about learning altogether and simply focus on motivation – a bit of a hit and hope approach. Or we could attempt to strip out some of what passes for engagement and teach demanding content in as impassioned a way as we can manage. Instead of tempting kids with shiny baubles, teach them and they will come. But what if they’re not interested in our subjects? What if they think maths,or poetry, or the Treaty of Versailles is boring?

Daniel Willingham argues that content doesn’t drive interest. He says

I’ll never forget my eagerness for the day my middle school teacher was to talk about sex. As a teenage boy in a staid 1970s suburban culture, I fizzed with anticipation of any talk about sex, anytime anywhere. But when the big day came, my friends and I were absolutely disable with boredom. It’s not that the teacher talked about flowers and pollination – he really did talk about human sexuality – but somehow it was still dull. I wish I could remember how he did it; boring a bunch of hormonal teenagers with a sex talk is quite a feat.

Quite so. All I remember of that lesson was the teacher using a rubber glove to demonstrate the purpose of an erection. She picked up the flaccid thing and showed how difficult it was to get one of the fingers through a hole, and then inflated it saying, “Look – it goes in easily now.”

The content of a lesson may be sufficient to whet your appetite, but it won’t sustain your interest if the lesson is dull. The key to motivation is working on problems that we find just difficult enough to be challenging but which we can actually do. There’s little satisfaction to had from completing word searches and you’re unlikely persevere at a cryptic crossword if you lack the necessary background knowledge to complete it.

Willingham offers the following suggestions to design lessons which will motivate students to learn:

Design lessons & assessment so that pupils can’t avoid thinking about meaning

There’s a direct relationship between what pupils think about and what they remember. So if we consider what pupils will actually be thinking about, rather than what we hope they’ll be thinking about, we’ll increase the likelihood of them learning what we intend them to learn. If we want pupils to think about poverty in Ireland during the potato famine it’s not particularly useful to get them to search the classroom for potatoes you’ve hidden. Yes, of course it’s fun, but it would be far more profitable to get them to think about how people might have gone about trying to feed themselves and  where they might have looked for food.

Be careful of attention grabbers

It’s become a truism that we must ‘hook’ pupils into learning. Teachers are encouraged to pique the interest of their pupils with beguiling and surprising pictures, music, videos and objects. This is marvellous for building anticipation but what will they remember? Willingham suggest that the beginning of the lesson is maybe not the best place for these hooks – maybe the middle of our lessons could do with a bit more drama? But even then we mustn’t underestimate the human ability to completely and utterly miss the point. I ran afoul of this at the Wellington Education Festival this year: I showed what I thought was a wonder video clip to demonstrate why we can’t trust our intuition. Later I read a blog about my session which confessed that they hadn’t understood the point I was trying (and failing) to make. In the classroom we don’t always get such well-considered feedback and it’s easy to believe that our attention grabbing starter has motivated pupils to learn when in fact it has just distracted and confused them.

Use discovery learning with care

Kids like discovery learning  – they’re motivated by the fact that they get to direct their activities and have much more freedom than when the teacher directs proceedings. The problem is that they will learn things which we don’t intend; things which aren’t actually true. That doesn’t mean we should never allow students to direct their learning, just that we need to construct our lessons so that they get immediate feedback about where they have gone astray. Willingham suggests that using computers is an ideal opportunity for discovery learning as pupils we very rapidly discover where they have made mistakes.

Don’t be afraid to use mnemonics

Willingham admits that only getting pupils to remember stuff without due consideration of what it might mean would a bad thing. But, there are occasions where it will pay pupils to memorise information. Mnemonics are a great way to contextualise otherwise slippery facts such as mathematical formulae, foreign vocabulary and spellings. I use mnemonics all the time to remember certain words; in fact it’s only since I learned about Pinky Orange Elephants In Africa that I’ve been able to spell onomatopoeia without looking it up!

Organise lessons around conflict

Willingham contends that lesson content is full of potential conflicts, or ‘big questions’. This is basically the same as working out the structure of your lesson and turning into a narrative with rising action, a climax and falling action. He suggests reverse engineering the material we want pupils to learn and considering what questions it might prompt.He gives us this example in teaching about different models of the atom that were proposed during the 20th century:

What is the question? In this story, the goal is to understand the nature of matter. The obstacle is that the results of different experiments appear to conflict with one another. Each new model that is proposed (Rutherford, cloud, Bohr) seems to resolve the conflict but then generates new complications – that is, the experiments to test the model seem to conflict with other experiments.

Structuring lessons in this way is both interesting (and therefore motivational) but also makes the content more memorable: “you are engaging pupils with the actual substance of the discipline.” Or as Dylan Wiliam says, “Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.” The idea that the content of our lessons needs to be made relevant to pupils is hugely problematic. A Shakespeare sonnet, quadratic equations and Hinduism are not necessarily going to seem relevant to many pupils – does that mean we should avoid teaching this stuff? Of course not. Instead it means working out the narrative or point of conflict within these topics so that we can get pupils to think about big, important questions.

Hopefully this adds some nuance to the debate about engagement and fun. It’s nonsense to suggest that pupils’ motivation is unimportant but it’s equally daft to value engagement over learning.

And just in case you thought I’d forgotten, here’s Mr Ocean in action

Related posts

The problem with fun
Building anticipation…How to get kids to look forward to your lesson without dumbing down
Resigning a curriculum