I hate exercise. I do it but I hate it. It find it boring and so I try to find things to distract me. For instance, I might watch a TV show whilst riding on my exercise bike. However, the exercise itself takes up a lot of my attention and so this doesn’t really work. Sometimes, I take a break from it. Over time, I have found that I can cycle faster and at greater resistance. So I do experience the feeling of improvement. In contrast, I have friends and acquaintances who started to exercise seriously in their thirties, began to improve and then felt motivated by this. They now cycle up mountains and talk at length at social gatherings about kilometres and minutes. That’s not me. I know that exercise is good for me and so I do it, but I can’t imagine enjoying the process.
As something of an evangelist for explicit instruction, I usually point to research on its effectiveness. Often people reject this research or tell me how complicated social science is, that we can’t know anything and so we should use their preferred teaching methods. At this point, I am sometimes referred to the rather eccentric world of critical realism. The argument seems to be that I am a “positivist”.
However, the dismissal of explicit instruction also comes in an entirely different form. Sometimes, teachers and academics will accept that explicit instruction is effective but they will state that they are more interested in motivation. Other approaches to education are more motivating, is the claim. As I’ve mentioned before, the proponents of inquiry learning in this news report basically use motivation as their entire argument.
I was involved in a small way this week with a Twitter exchange between Dan Meyer and Robert Craigen. Craigen is promoting a report which recommends explicit maths instruction. Meyer has taken exception to this and has, among other things, wielded the motivation argument. He notes that, “62% of the Algebra teachers surveyed in the NMAP said the biggest problem they face is ‘motivating students’.”
I have no doubt that this is a concern, particularly in America where ‘high-stakes’ tests are high-stakes for the teachers but not generally for the students. But I don’t think that Meyer sees the problem this way. Instead, the implication is that we can teach in a way that students will find more motivating and that explicit instruction is not the way to do this.
Firstly, I think that the premise is flawed. Imagine the ‘real-world’ projects from David Perkins’ new book in which students plan for their town’s future water needs or model its traffic flow. These are meant to be ‘relevant’ and therefore motivating. Really? Many students would find them utterly dull. And what of explicit instruction about how to build an atomic bomb? A lot of students find that pretty interesting – I know this because I’ve taught it myself. Even in this zeitgeisty example where students mess about with robots (and supposedly learn physics, which I doubt), you can imagine that unless this is an elective, some students will be hanging around the edge and talking about what they’re going to do at recess, completely unmotivated by the robots. In fact, the group-work structure makes it easier for these guys to coast.
However, let us assume that the tasks are motivating. Imagine that you said to me that I could get off the exercise bike and go for a walk around the local shopping mall instead. I would certainly enjoy this experience a lot more and you could claim that I was still exercising. This is the character of many ‘motivating’ maths games – there’s still maths in there, somewhere. But I wouldn’t take you up on this offer because I know that the exercise bike is better for me. I’ll stick at that.
You see, the purpose of learning something like maths is similar to the purpose of riding the exercise bike – it’s good for us. As you learn maths, you will improve at it and you might find this motivating just like those folks who are motivated by doing their exercises. You might develop a lifelong passion. In fact, I would hope that all students are exposed to at least one subject at school that they can feel passionate about.
But you might not develop a passion for maths. If not, what are you left with? Well, we know that an academic education correlates to higher pay and we know that this is particularly the case for subjects like maths. So there are financial reasons. It also contributes to your world-knowledge. Studying quadratic equations means that you know what David Perkins is writing about when he argues that students shouldn’t have to study quadratic equations. Without that knowledge, you simply could not access the debate.
But there’s something else. The discipline to work hard at something that you don’t find immediately rewarding in order to achieve a greater goal is a discipline much valued; not just by employers but by your adult self who is trying to make a good life. It is why I can keep getting on that exercise bike and it’s what stops us from being selfish narcissists whose need for constant entertainment prevents us from ever doing anything of consequence.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not the fun police. If you can make the learning more interesting without diluting it then go for it. It is even appropriate to take a break from time-to-time just to have some fun with your students. Not a problem. Just remember what you’re here for; to teach a subject.
You are not a clown.