Teaching and motivation

I am taking a course on teaching online right now, and in one of the assignments for the course I wrote this:

As I see it, teaching isn’t about the students, and it isn’t about me – it’s about the ideas. I love the ideas. I’m passionate about the beauty of truth and the adventure of thinking hard about things. My goal as a teacher … is to show that truth to students. If they catch a little of my passion for it at the same time, so much the better.

An instructor for the course responded with this comment:

Kevin, I think one of the frustrations of teaching is trying to light that fire under students to make them want to learn and do more than the minimum level to pass the course. I think the desire to see students achieve that and the frustration when they don’t is shared across curriculum areas.

So, the question is, in part, how do we create that desire? How can we wield that kind of influence?

I have two responses. I’ll mention the first here.

Suppose for a moment that I am standing in front of a class about to teach them the Pythagorean Theorem. I have, on the one hand, the Pythagorean Theorem itself – well, not just the theorem itself but also all the other ideas connected to it, all of which I find really cool. And I have on the other hand the students. They are supposed to learn all this cool stuff, but they don’t consider it cool. That’s OK – they don’t really have to –but how can I motivate them to learn it as fully as possible anyway?

Here’s what I’ve learned: when I try to motivate the students by focusing on motivating them, it never works. When I concentrate on my students’ attitudes toward math, I lose sight of the beauty of the math itself. All the joy goes out of my teaching for a few moments. I find myself scolding or apologizing. What I’ve learned to do instead is to maintain my focus steadily on the stuff I’m teaching. As long as I keep my eyes on the math, my love for it comes through. As I explain what I’m seeing, the students get a glimpse of the same thing. They start to see the ideas, just a little, through my eyes. That makes sense, when you think about it. It’s as though whatever I look at, the students look at. Their gaze will follow mine. The side effect is an increase in student motivation to learn the material.

A teacher I respect says that we should aim our teaching at the best students, not the weakest ones. That raises the bar for everyone, and the class does better as a whole. Another teacher says he focuses his teaching toward the hard workers. I do something similar, but in my case I focus on the curious students. I even imagine my audience as being more curious than the evidence suggests. I make the arbitrary assumption that they are already interested, that they all want to like math. The result, usually, is that they turn out to be interested after all. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t think my approach is best for all teachers. Everyone has different abilities. Some teachers are really terrific at motivating students and my way of doing things would be needlessly indirect for them. For me, though, this is what works.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching and motivation

  1. Personally.. even though Algebra sometimes frustrates me (mostly because I have forgotten a LOT of it in the past… oh 12 years or so) I have always liked your teaching. There is a reason why I took College Algebra, when any other math class would have suited my purposes, YOU teach it. I recommend you as a teacher for all the classes you have to almost EVERYONE I see.. You are what made philosophy even MORE fun for me.. and it was already something I loved. I pay more attention in your Algebra class then I do in classes where the subject interests me, but the teacher doesn’t. This is why I enjoy Richard’s history class. He is REALLY enthusiastic about history and it SHOWS when he teaches, which I believe helps students pay more attention. It’s difficult to ignore enthusiasm.

    Just ignore the back two rows of the Algebra class 😛

  2. I’m definitely interested in seeing how the motivational aspect will come through when I have my own classes someday… *Most* people who take high school theater classes do so because they enjoy it in some way, since it’s usually an elective rather than a required course. But I agree with what you say here – I think directing it toward the curious students makes a lot of sense and would probably do the most to spark the interest of those who *aren’t* curious.

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