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The Hard Work and Exhilaration of Learning

| Ben Johnson

Just two hundred more yards! Flip, push off, breathe. Right, left, right, breathe. Left, right, left, breathe. Long stroke, all the way forward and all the way back, deep. I can't get enough breath. Flip, push off, and breathe. Breathe again. You can do it, Ben!

My arms are complaining, the ache goes down to the fingertips. Only one hundred fifty left! Don't slow down. Kick more. Keep the rhythm: stroke, kick, stroke, kick, stroke, kick, breathe, repeat... Flip, push off, breathe...big breath. Only fifty left. Pick it up! Pull harder, all the way forward and all the way back. Breathe every stroke. Pulse is pounding, adrenaline kicks in, and I'm swimming faster, harder. Almost there, keep swinging the arms even though they feel like lead: right, left, right. Done. Rest. Check pulse, float. Exhilaration!

Intrinsic Motivation

I met a goal to swim a thousand yards freestyle without stopping this morning. Some might call me crazy, others in the pool went much further. It was hard work that required everything I had in order to complete it. I knew I could do it, but I had not done it since I was in college thirty years ago. I did it because I knew it would be a milestone for me to get further in shape. I didn't worry about how long it took me; speed would come later.

There were no cheering crowds or gold medals, but I knew I had accomplished a tremendous feat for me and that made all the difference. My motivation is internal and self-perpetuating.

Let me remind you and all of your students that learning is hard work -- just like swimming a thousand yards without stopping. Any coach can tell you that growth only comes when you stretch further than you think you can and practice more than you think you can endure. When you read deeper, think longer, and create more enthusiastically, that is when the learning really happens.

Then, when you look and admire your work, it is exhilarating to know that you have accomplished a challenging and difficult goal. More likely than not, no one will know how much you have learned, but you will know. There will be no cheering crowds and no fame or fortune. Nevertheless you feel satisfied, complete, and ready for more.

Your motivation to learn more is even greater just because you completed your learning goal. Surprisingly, the hard work has not scared you off and your resolve and determination to succeed has not diminished. The eagerness for the next learning adventure wells up within you as you reach out for new knowledge and skills. This is when learning is fun.

In the Classrom

Each student needs and deserves his or her own internal motivation to learn. In order for this to blossom within the students, some simple things need to happen. Teachers need to create an atmosphere of belonging to a high performance learning team -- learning is the goal and every learning activity (adventure) is designed to bring the students closer to that goal.

Also important for inspiring a love and drive for learning:

  • Teachers need to teach students to set realistic learning goals with plans on how they will get to mastery.
  • Students need to know how their own brain works and how to maximize the effect of their time and effort.
  • Students need to know the steps of learning, the cycle, and the process that will be repeated over and over again.
  • Students need constant feedback regarding their progress.
  • Teachers need to establish long distance mind-sets that keep the mind focused on the goal and the diminishing gap between the student and that goal (only one more book, only two more problems etc.)
  • Teachers need to celebrate even little steps of progress and encourage the attitude of determination to finish strong.
  • Students need time to rest and relax after intense learning and especially they need time to reflect on what they learned and how much they grew. They need to pat themselves on the back and recognize that they have accomplished their goals and achieved significant and measurable growth.
  • Teachers need to show the students the growth they have had and instill the determination for more. Finally, students need to be able to show off what they know and can do, as a class and as individuals.

I have been privileged to witness teachers who have done these very things for their students and I thank them for instilling this life-long learning drive and thirst for knowledge. I wish you the best year and encourage you to teach the students how to be active, high-performance learners so they can experience the total exhilaration that comes from true academic growth.

As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback on my meanderings.

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Comments (10)

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Third Grade Teacher

Hi Ben, Your post was so

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Hi Ben,

Your post was so inspirational. I have not met a student yet that does not want to be successful. A big part of developing successful learners is giving them time to look back and reflect on their growth and development. Watching students discover how much they have grown through personal goal setting is the first step to creating life-long learners.

Students do not want to be

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Students do not want to be mediocre. Every one of them has something they are fantastically interested in learning. And if it's not one of the regular academic subjects, that's perfectly fine. Or at least, it should be perfectly fine.

You're right to say that the current system makes it extremely difficult to provide freedom of learning and not end up with lazy kids. In fact, it's such an old dilemma that A.S. Neill addressed it in his book, Summerhill, 50 years ago. But he also exemplified that students can be weened from the current methodology and adapt to having freedom. It just takes a while.

Also, I don't think we should let the current system limit us. This is idealistic, sure, but I believe Education ought to be ideal. Not practical, convenient or safe. Ideal. Education is a tool to change the world, for better or worse. Don't we want what's best for our kids? Personally, I firmly believe that student-directed learning is best for all of them. Even if they have to adjust from the soul-wrenching system we have now.

Administrator, author and educator

True Student Centered Learning? Is that Possible?

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Thiago:

If students had been learning all along in that fashion, I might, might, be tempted to agree with you on letting students learn whatever they want, from whomever, at whatever pace. But the problem with that is that they were not taught in elementary or junior high school like that. Rather the opposite was crammed down their throats. Way too much control, and those who could not handle that much control found other things to learn. Given the system that we have, the best we can hope for is to have little islands of student directed learning floating in a massive sea of teacher directed instruction. As much as we want to believe that we can unleash the tremendous curiosity and desire to learn in each student, there are way too many variables to control, and students figure things out quick--learning is hard work and for many, taking the easy road is what they want to do. That is harder to do if there is a concerned teacher anticipating this, and standing in the way and making it difficult for the students to be mediocre.

Great comments!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

I agree with a lot of what

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I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. Learning and discovery are some of the most amazing experiences a human being can have. Very few things can be as life-altering as a good old epiphany.

One thing I believe is massively important and extremely hard to do is define where the line is, for the teacher, between helping and interfering. Teachers are guides, not magical, speaking books. I believe students ought to be free to learn whatever they want, however, whenever, with whomever and at any pace they desire.

I agree with a lot of what

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I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. Learning and discovery are some of the most amazing experiences a human being can have. Very few things can be as life-altering as a good old epiphany.

One thing I believe is massively important and extremely hard to do is define where the line is, for the teacher, between helping and interfering. Teachers are guides, not magical, speaking books. I believe students ought to be free to learn whatever they want, however, whenever, with whomever and at any pace they desire.

Author and speaker about lives and learning of youth; co-founder, WKCD.org

fires in the mind

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Great post, Ben! Your bulleted list is right on target--and it echoes exactly what students told me, when I asked them "What does it take to get *really good* at something?" Kids so much want classroom teachers to act like their best coaches do! And when it happens, motivation and mastery increase exponentially (we called it "fires in the mind").

5th grade teacher in Delaware

Something That Helps Combat Burnout!

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I received this email from a former student this morning. This will combat burnout any day!:)
http://oldschoolteach.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/feeling-burned-out-read-t...

Administrator, author and educator

Mile Swim Update

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FYI:

I just wanted to revise my goals-- I have now met the goal of swimming a mile. Now I will be meeting the goal of swimming the mile faster than a turtle :-).

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX.

Administrator, author and educator

Ya Gotta Wanna

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Diane:

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Ben Johnson is a popular name. I like it though. I get asked if I wrote a dictionary, if I ran track and if was a side kick for John Wayne.

We get inspiration from all sorts of places. I'm glad that I could be your source of inspiration.

Rewards are extrinsic motivation, but recognition and celebrating improvement promote intrinsic motivation. Good luck with inspiring your students to strive harder.

Best Regards,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I just had to check out your blog because I was interested in who this Ben Johnson person was. I have a former student, and son of close family friends, whose name is Ben Johnson. What to my surprise when I started reading your blog and it was actually about swimming, considering he was a swimmer in high school and college. What a small world! As I finished reading your blog about students setting goals (which I knew) and needing feedback (which I also know), a lightbulb went off for me. I have been wanting to find a way to motivate our students in our cardio. room. It's not enough for me to see students earn an A+ or B+, etc., I want them to push themselves to do their best, which for many of them would be better than just the A+. I don't want them to just work for the "grade". I want them to work for themselves in the process. You have inspired me to work towards a reward program of some sort to motivate students to do their best, not just settle for the grade. Hopefully this can be accomplished by setting goals and receiving feedback from their teachers. Thank you![/quote]

Physical Education Teacher

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I just had to check out your blog because I was interested in who this Ben Johnson person was. I have a former student, and son of close family friends, whose name is Ben Johnson. What to my surprise when I started reading your blog and it was actually about swimming, considering he was a swimmer in high school and college. What a small world! As I finished reading your blog about students setting goals (which I knew) and needing feedback (which I also know), a lightbulb went off for me. I have been wanting to find a way to motivate our students in our cardio. room. It's not enough for me to see students earn an A+ or B+, etc., I want them to push themselves to do their best, which for many of them would be better than just the A+. I don't want them to just work for the "grade". I want them to work for themselves in the process. You have inspired me to work towards a reward program of some sort to motivate students to do their best, not just settle for the grade. Hopefully this can be accomplished by setting goals and receiving feedback from their teachers. Thank you!

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