Interest and Motivation

I am starting to not like school very much. I used to love it because it kept me busy. It was challenging to juggle a few classes, my job, and my home life – keeping straight As in the process. The work itself wasn’t that challenging, but it kept me busy. Between semesters I would pick up my independent research as best I could (because I really couldn’t remember where I left off) and move forward with more engaging ideas. But a new semester would come and the non-challenging work would commence.

This summer has been different. This is my second semester since I took a much needed year-long break, and during this semester my independent research never actually stopped. I made a commitment to this blog and to my company in June, and the work and research that I have done to keep that commitment has been much more stimulating and rewarding than school ever has been. I am even beginning to resent school because it inevitably takes some time away from the blog, the business, and the research. For starters, the research is much more interesting. I am currently reading Ungifted by Scott Barry Kaufman. I couldn’t put it down all last weekend, and I plan on reviewing it soon. That book blew my mind, and I’m not even done with it yet. It has given me several pieces of the puzzle of my first workshop, Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. I have been working on and off with this workshop for about a year, but in the past two weeks I have renewed my efforts to make it great and actually offer it to participants.

I can hear you saying, “Okay, where are you going with this?” Well, we are much more motivated to do things we are interested in than not, just like I am much more motivated by my interesting research and blog than schoolwork. The same is true of anyone else, including children. If the things we want children to learn are not presented to them in an interesting way, they will not be motivated to learn them. Sitting on a carpet reciting flashcards is not motivating or interesting. Matching games are interesting. Learning colors by using and naming them while doing are is interesting. Worksheets = not interesting. Learning math concepts with objects that can be manipulated = interesting.

My youngest daughter is seven years old and is well into the process of learning to read. During the school year she had not seemed very motivated, but it occurred to me that she enjoys learning about things (her favorite subjects right now are bacteria, fungus, and mirrors). She has become much more motivated to read over the summer as she has picked up books in the non-fiction section of the library in order to learn about different subjects. This motivation has been born out of her interest in learning new things.

In the classroom we would do well to remember that motivation is born of interest, and it isn’t simply about finding interesting ways to frame lessons. It is also about observing children to discover what their interests are and framing lessons around that.

The children in my class were very into movie theaters about two months ago, so we made our own theater. We put on a mini-production of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, in which the children took turns playing the characters that they wanted to play. We made tickets, complete with the letter “T”. We made our own popcorn stand and practiced counting by paying for the popcorn with fake money. All of these lessons and skills were embedded into the movie theater theme. There was probably much more we could have done with the theme, but the the theme lasted for a few weeks and we tried to come up with several different ways we could build on the experience. But we did it based on a theme that the children were interested in. Had they been interested in restaurants, we would have explored recipes and created menus, practiced writing in a notepad while we took orders, did some cooking activities, used fake money to pay for the food, and anything else we could have come up with to learn while we explored restaurants.

There are many different ways to include the interests of the children in learning, and creating a learning environment based on the children’s interests has a lot of other advantages to development as well. For instance, children learn social skills and how to handle different social situations, such as ordering food in a restaurant and taking turns playing different parts with their peers. This is ultimately what is meant by “learning through play”. Children don’t need much motivation to play; they play all day long. The challenge for teachers is to take that naturally-occurring motivation, along with the naturally occurring interest, and make a rich learning experience out of it.

Quote from Roald Dahl

Portrait of Roald Dahl,1954 Apr. 20

Portrait of Roald Dahl,1954 Apr. 20 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ran into this quote today from Roald Dahl and I just had to post it:

I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.

So true, so true! What are you interested in? Are you passionate about it? Is it an intimate part of who you are?

The Theory of Concentrated Attention

For the past few weeks, my research has taken me in very unexpected (although not unwelcome) areas. I have been reading a book that has been very enlightening to me, and that I hope to review before my school semester starts. It ties a lot of basic principles together that I have been hard-pressed to try to work out for myself. It has also taken my research into discipline, punishments, rewards, classroom management, and curriculum into new areas which I had not foreseen. Suffice to say that I have been very surprised at how much the book has impacted me, for I had planned for my research to go a very different direction than the one it has taken.

According to this book, the phrase “theory of concentrated attention” was first used by Maria Montessori in 1917. John Dewey also used a version of the phrase: “theory of undivided interest”. Basically this theory pertains to any activity that children engage in independently that holds their interest in such a way that outside distractions do not disturb them for an amount of time that seems impossible for their age.

I have often seen this type of thing happen in my classroom and have marveled at it. I once saw a girl – a two-year-old – take her shoe off and work to put it back on her foot repeatedly for days until she had mastered putting her shoe back on her foot. When she was working with that shoe, nothing would distract her. I recently saw another two-year-old girl working with a lacing card not far from where her friends were playing a pretend game with their baby dolls – a game that she frequently plays with them. It is amazing to see a child enter this state because their demeanor changes; they become calmer, focused, and very in-tune to the task at hand.

Usually when anyone thinks of a two-year-old, they think of a wild child who tears through the room completely full of energy and spark. While this is true, two-year-olds (and other ages as well – I only single them out because I work with this age every day) exhibit an amazing capacity to concentrate on certain activities – as long as those activities are interesting to the child. Our job then, as teachers, is to come up with those activities that will hold the child’s interest and attention.

Very soon I will be doing a post about how curriculum goes hand-in-hand with discipline, but the idea that the activities that we provide need to be ones that hold our children’s interest hits very close to the theme of that topic. When children are engaged in an activity that interests them, they no longer have a need to go tearing around a room or bugging their friends to the point that there is an altercation. They become calmer and more able to work productively with others. It is a winning theory for the classroom.

But another point that I want to make at this time is that sometimes the activity that the child becomes interested in isn’t one that you have provided as a teacher. Concerning the child who worked so long on learning how to put her shoe on: if I, as her teacher, had fussed at her about taking her shoes off, took her shoes from her, and put them back on her feet myself, she never would have learned the skill of putting her shoes on her feet. Teachers need to be sensitive to what children are trying to accomplish on their own and less quick to judge what is right and wrong for a child to do. If we take a step back and observe what children are doing in any given moment, and try to put those actions into an objective developmental perspective rather than a judgmental perspective, we may see that there is more learning going on in “mistaken behaviors” than we may realize. And the reason why our field has chosen to label these behaviors as mistaken is not because the child is mistaken in doing them, but because it is so easy to mistake these behaviors for discipline issues. They usually are, in fact, experimental issues.

Children are like scientists; they constantly want to learn more about the world around them. If they aren’t given engaging activities to do, they will make some up for themselves. These activities could be anything from hitting their friends to find out what will happen, to hitting an object with another object to find out what will happen. To curtail these behaviors,  providing engaging activities and teaching the children how to properly explore with the materials for the activities is a must. It will lead to a much calmer, more focused classroom.

And you may even see the wonder of a child as they are so focused on the activity that you have provided that nothing else in the room matters.