Motivating students about mathsPosted: November 12, 2015
One of the long running arguments that I have been involved with is an argument about motivation. When I promote explicit instruction, it is sometimes suggested that I have neglected the role of motivation altogether. People think that it is little use showing that explicit instruction maximises learning if it puts kids off; if it’s demotivating. In commenting on one of my blog posts, Dan Meyer claimed that I, “hypothesize that learning and motivation trade against each other, that we can choose one or the other but not both.”
This is not the case. I am actually pretty interested in motivation. I just happen to 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 inherently less interesting and therefore less motivating than the proposed alternatives, but that’s a separate issue).
The problem is that achievement and motivation are correlated with each other and so many commentators then assume that we can increase achievement by taking steps to increase motivation; motivation causes achievement. This is often the rationale for inquiry learning initiatives (e.g. here and here). Yet we can’t be sure that it works this way around. It could just as well be true that achievement causes intrinsic motivation. This is what I tend to think. Or it could be the case that the cause acts in both directions; a virtuous circle.
A new paper has been published (thanks to @MrPABruno for the link) that offers some support for my view. It looked at the interaction between achievement and intrinsic motivation in maths in Grades 1 to 4. The discussion is full of caveats, as we might expect of a good academic paper. We can’t necessarily generalise the claims beyond the scope of the study. For instance, we should not assume that the results would be replicated in Middle School science.
Yet the findings are quite clear. “Cross-lagged models showed that achievement predicted intrinsic motivation from Grades 1 to 2, and from Grades 2 to 4. However, intrinsic motivation did not predict achievement at any time.” This falsifies a key prediction of self-determination theory. A separate finding of perhaps even greater importance was that attitudes harden very early in education and so primary school maths is critical for how students will see themselves mathematically in the future.
It would be cool if I could claim credit for great foresight but my views about this are actually based on research from the early 1970s. In Project Follow Through, students who were taught using the model that did the most to improve achievement – Direct Instruction – saw greater gains in self-esteem than students taught using models that directly targeted self-esteem.
So we seem to be building quite a consistent body of evidence.