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.