Motivation in Science and Mathematics

I created a graphic so that I can quickly address a question that arises often.

Motivation

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11 Comments on “Motivation in Science and Mathematics”

  1. teachwell says:

    Exactly!!! Spot on Greg. I have often found the activities in science that were the most motivational were not the ones that I had been told would be (i.e. they conduct all their own experiments and decide for themselves).

    I can still remember one lesson where we filtered soil and water, it was done as a whole class demonstration and the children absolutely loved it and were recording every filter. I had never seen them as engaged as they were free from having to think about conducting it and could go straight for the explanation.

    Not that I don’t think children should do experiments but just that they start off having to work out what they need and choosing how to conduct the experiments before they really understand what a good one is and how it works. Until they have lots of exposure to this, they can’t come up with their own in the same way.

  2. I was at a corporate event in the autumn and listened to a presentation on motivation, the results of which I think are based on well-established research. Money is only a motivator when the task is mechanical, like stuffing envelopes. When the task is difficult, the prospect of reward is distracting and so often reduces performance (maybe in the classroom context, for “money” read “praise” or other extrinsic reward). In these circumstances, the key motivators were (1) a sense of purpose (divisible into (1.a) “ultimate” purpose and more immediately, (1.b) recognition by those around you; 2. autonomy; and 3. increasing mastery.

    So I agree with you, Greg, on account of point (3) – spot on, as teachwell says. Good teaching is its own motivator. And with reference to the selection of learning activities, which is the subject of this diagram, that may be all that needs to be said. In my field of ed-tech, we have been bedevilled by people advocating irrelevant and often extremely time consuming activities, such as commercial games like Minecraft or Angry Birds, on the grounds that they are “fun”.

    But more widely, isn’t there a bit more that this to be said about motivation? Is there no place at all for the odd Tim Collins / Henry V motivational pep-talk?

    And most critically, what is the value of relationships? When people say to me (as an advocate of ed-tech) that teaching is an intrinsically human activity, with the implication that it therefore cannot be modeled in a sequence of learning activities, I ask “why is teaching intrinsically a human activity?” and answer my own question, in part, by suggesting that role modelling may be vitally important. Do not adolescents in particular tend to latch on their role models – for better or worse – whom they both imitate and seek to please? And do we not, looking back on our own adolescence, have the experience of really wanting to do well for certain teachers whom we admired? Is it not our duties as teachers to exploit this psychological and developmental tendency?

    In which case, could the motivation issue not be reduced primarily to:
    1. experience of increasing mastery (through effective teaching);
    2. and good relationships with teacher?

    …recognising autonomy and understanding of purpose as important secondary issues.

    Here’s the next question: what then is the relationship between those two primary considerations? In your diagram, Greg, *who* is doing the designing, choosing and sequencing of the learning activities? Why does it have to be the classroom teacher?

    I think the nub of the argument that I am trying to make is that this business of designing, choosing and sequencing learning activities lies at the heart of pedagogy – the technical aspect of teaching – and it is a characteristic of technology (defined as the application of empirical knowledge to the the attainment of an objective) that it is explicit and replicable, not private and intuitive.

    Given that the education service is a very large and complex business delivering a very complex service, highly dependent on skilled labour of a sort that it is often in very short supply, should we not be trying to implement a rather more effective division of labour than is the case at present? Shouldn’t we be tending to centralise the design and sequencing of activities, which is by no means a simple matter, while leaving front-line classroom teachers to the equally important business of managing human relationships and presenting their students with good role models?

    The first aspect of teaching is a sort of technology, the second is a sort of craft.

    I am not proposing to reduce the autonomy of the classroom teacher in this matter – but rather suggesting that there is a role for digital technology to create the activity platforms and activity sequences that will give the classroom teacher the “tools of the trade”, making this more technical aspect of the teacher’s job much easier, and helping to make their performance much more reliable than is commonly the case at the moment.

  3. teachwell says:

    I don’t think Crispin you are that far off from what I believe and I do believe, despite being v. trad in my teaching, that technology has a huge role to play in the future of teaching. However, it is interesting the results of using ed tech is down to the quality of the teacher. A good teacher can use technology effectively to teach and this adds to the learning, a poor teacher won’t.

    The reasons are the same – motivation as a learner. I think the kind of approach Greg is criticising which is that learners discover it all for themselves with teachers as facilitators actually reduces the impact of the ed tech.

    While I agree that there is much tech to use out there, I would also say it needs to be flexible enough to adapt as teachers see fit as rigid software has a limited use in the face of teaching a group of children whose learning will never fall into neat categories. What one child understands easily, another doesn’t. Neither do ability labels help – in terms of visualising nets of cubes for example, the child who had the most aptitude was in one of my lowest groups for maths. Sometimes kids just get it and the problem with tech is that many teachers will restrict activities based on the labelled ability of the child even more so whereas in real life you can react a lot quicker in the face of evidence.

    Having rolled out the new curriculum and been the computing lead in my previous school, I realised that teachers need to see tech as a tool not a panacea and they still need to be able to assess the quality of the products they are using, as this in itself is an education for children.

    I completely disagree with the ‘just google it’ angle as I think a lot of adults who have the benefit of stored knowledge are not taking into consideration what it would be like as a child to navigate the internet with no prior knowledge to guide. In fact, one the things I asked teachers to do was to stop asking children to do random searches but instead teach them about key words and the difference between reliable and unreliable sites. Without good quality teaching, children will just go to the first website and copy and paste. Why not? Is that not the easiest option when there is so little guidance?

    • Hi teachwell, I agree with everything you say here – a preference for traditional approaches, belief that tech has an important part to play, that tech has to be flexible and subject to teacher control (I like the tool metaphor), that “just google it” is just a route to plagiarism (which isn’t malicious in young children but just their natural way of doing research) etc. – except one. I don’t agree that there is lots of tech to use out there. In my view the tech is mainly generic (iPads, browsers, file-sharing, YouTube, Google) and the education-specific tech is mainly of poor quality. And this is my explanation for why the evidence for tech helping to improve learning outcomes is very very thin.

      Tech of the generic sort has generally been used, IMO, as a vehicle for progressive, independent learning. In my view, the potential is to use tech to manage activity and feedback following a more traditional paradigm and for this to work, we need better education-specific software, of a type that isn’t really available at the moment. I tried my hand at an infographic to illustrate what I mean, at https://edtechnowdotnet.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/my-first-infographic1.gif. Thanks, Crispin.

      • teachwell says:

        I see what you mean – I actually am in the process of trying to design some planning software that is linked to assessment/data in a meaningful way that actually cuts down the time spent on each. However, while I have the ideas, alas I do not have a programmer!! I love the clarity of the infographic.

      • Don’t do it teachwell! I spent many years of my life on this in the last 1990s/early 2000s. I reckon I produced some pretty capable software but there are two huge politico-commercial barriers: (1) the lack of activity-driven content to plug into such a management system, (2) the lack of robust interoperability standards to allow them to do so. You might like to have a look at the history of SCORM, Learning Design, and Simple Sequencing that track this problem. In short, what you call “planning software” is a piece of infrastructural software that really needs an Apple, Google or Microsoft to take the lead – and they will not move until government(s) starts to get to grips with the issue and create the sort of benign market environment in which companies can hope to achieve ROI.

  4. […] have a different theory of motivation to many people. I have even gone to the trouble of creating a graphic to explain this (I have also written that I reject the dubious idea that explicit instruction is […]

  5. […] it wasn’t, the story quickly became a source of frustration instead. I’m on board with Greg Ashman’s posts on this very topic. The fun and creativity must be subservient to aiding learning, understanding and […]

  6. […] this works and efforts should probably focus more on the quality of STEM teachers (more later). I think it represents a misunderstanding of cause and effect in academic motivation and there is some evidence to support my […]


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