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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The issue of how to motivate students is an essential one for educators and parents to explore and one that's core to the success of our children. We all know that if students aren't motivated, their journeys will be long and hard. As with so much, sometimes if we start with ourselves -- with reflecting on our own issues with motivation -- we can gain useful insights. I hope to offer some thoughts that may provoke personal reflection and suggest strategies for helping kids to gain motivation.

This blog is inspired by my own lack of motivation right now to write this. This blog is (right now) overdue and I've procrastinated long enough. As I lie on my deck this morning contemplating my lack of motivation and mounting guilt that it isn't done, I start remembering how many times as a student I didn't want to write something, or how many times as a teacher, I felt no motivation to lesson plan or grade papers. "I'm just not feeling motivated," I kept thinking, and then a more useful thought came into my mind: "It doesn't matter. Get it done."

That's Lesson Number One that I wish I knew as a student: Sometimes you aren't going to be motivated but do it anyway -- such a simple lesson that has propelled me into action. Maybe motivation is overrated. Maybe in order to be successful we don't really need a whole lot of it.

Really it's just a shift in perspective: I'm not feeling motivated to write right now. I'm just returning from vacation where I devoured mystery novels, (I'm halfway through one now and it's calling to me to finish it), I hiked and hung out with my husband and son, slept a lot, and worked diligently on my "Play PD." I've started a photography course and a sketchbook class and I'm honoring my commitments to myself to play and create and relax. And then there's this blog -- and other things I've got to do.

Here's the shift in perspective: I'm not particularly motivated to write right now, but I am motivated to honor my commitments (such as this blog). I'm motivated to get it done. And when I say that, I feel a little jolt of energy. Let's do it.

I learned this a long time ago (I just forget it a lot). Some might call what I think I've learned "time management," or "discipline," or something to do with motivation. I call it, "getting things done." As a writer, and someone with a full time job and family, I learned that I might not often feel super motivated to write, the muse is often nowhere to be found and sometimes I might even hate writing. But I do it anyway. I show up, close down my Internet browsers (deadly distractions) and I put my fingers on the keys and I write. I also set a timer for 45-minute blocks and during that time I don't allow myself to get up or do anything other than what I'm supposed to do. After the time is up, I can have a 15-minute break and then I'm on for another 45. That's how I get things done.

Sometimes I think that in schools we focus too much on building intrinsic motivation for learning, or we're working too hard at it. Learning is rewarding and we're all going to feel a certain amount of motivation and reward in different content areas and with different tasks. Sometimes I think it would be useful if teachers helped kids find motivation in getting something done. In balance, of course -- I'm vehemently opposed to all learning being about memorization or rote learning or just getting things done. But sometimes you need your students to just write a persuasive essay and maybe it's not something they really care much about but they could be motivated to just do it. Add it to the list of things they know how to do and that they've done. And if they can do it in a reasonable amount of time, and the quality is decent, then that's fantastic.

Another thing I know about getting things done: They don't always have to be done really well. I am grateful that I've never been plagued by perfectionism. If I'm tasked with doing something for which I struggle to feel motivated then I'm quite satisfied if the outcome is satisfactory or decent. If it's something I pour my heart and soul into, then I hope the outcome is really good. But I'm the judge of this; I evaluate my own input and product. I don't get caught up on "Is it perfect?" I ask myself, "Is this good enough, right now, given what you've invested?" And usually the answer is "Yes."

And so, if this blog isn't amongst the best I've ever written, I'm okay with that (in contrast to my recent, "How to Divorce Your District," which I worked on intensively.) Sometimes you just got to get something done.

This is liberating, this idea. You don't always have to feel inundated with creative juices and motivation. You just have to honor your commitments to yourself and others. Agonizing over what you have to do and how you don't want to do it and how you just want to wait until you feel motivated is a waste of time and energy. Just do it. Set a timer, think about how great it'll feel when you're done, and do it.

And with that, I'm done! And I feel good! And now I can return to my mystery novel. For those of you needing a distracting summer read, I highly recommend the Ruth Galloway series written by Elly Griffiths. Set in England, the protagonist is a compelling forensic archaeologist who gets caught up in detective work. They're easy to read, light on violence, and incorporate interesting tidbits of history.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this blog post? Please share in the comments section below.

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The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

Brood and ruin your mood.

I finally got smart and learned that too-many cigars and cheap wine and brooding for way too long every evening at home, was not the way to take the edge off what a teacher experiences. It was not the way to refresh. It's exercise--open-mouth breathing, sweat-spewing, body-changing exercise. That's what ultimately does it.

I started training for marathons and ran in a bunch of marathons and half-marathons and in those hard-core, military style obstacle course races, one of them with Mr. Warbird leading the charge to not be burned alive, electrocuted, or drown in creeks, lakes, or pools of mud or ice water.

I boxed at the local Police Athletic league and got kicked around, but while I changed my body and teacher's mind for the better. Some of my students caught on and asked why in the heck would I subject myself to all that. I never told them the real truth. But I did let them punch me in my stomach as hard as they wanted and anytime they wanted. You can know your subject and teach it like an expert, but if you want to impress young scholars, let them punch you in your new rock-hard gut and enjoy the satisfaction of being their teacher-hero in the most unconventional way.

This used to drive Principal Lurlene crazy and she told me to stop but I never did. Old Burrell thought it was brilliant. At his old school, six or seven hundred years ago, he said he used to kick kids out of class by dragging them into the hall while they were still in their desks. That was back in the good ol' days, he said, and parents thanked him for it.

****

Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Darlene's picture

Your article is great and much needed for already overly stressed teachers. We need to learn to balance life better, especially in education. The pressure upon teachers to raise every student's intrinsic motivation is tremendous, now even to the point of having teachers' incomes affected by performance based pay. Teacher burnout is high. Along this line as well, I've seen too many students stressed to the max trying to be over achievers when they needed to spend more time being a kid. Life's too short and education is more than the test score; it's a relationship. We move people intrinsically more by the relationship we form with them rather than the pressure we place upon them to strive for perfection.

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Ro's picture

This is the story of my life! My feelings of motivation are as fluctuate like a roller coaster. I have so many talents that I find it difficult sometimes to just pick one and stick to it. It get overwhelmed with my ideas for teaching that sometimes I'll just freeze up and won't pursue any of them. You're right, sometimes you have to just do it!

Peggy Wiggins's picture
Peggy Wiggins
4th grade teacher Roswell GA

Well your article didn't motivate me to read it... I'd give you a C because you just got it done.

Stacie Pierpoint's picture

Your post is very realistic and honest. No one is motivated all the time to do everything they have to do. One way I found helped my students (and myself!) with their motivation was teaching them to ask themselves "What's stopping me from doing this task/assignment? Why don't I want to do it?" Often, I found reasons to be more complicated than "I just don't feel like it." And then we could move forward by addressing those reasons. If students learn to reflect and problem solve on their own, even better.

Sam Rubenstein's picture
Sam Rubenstein
High School English teacher from Brooklyn, NY

The tricky part is convincing kids that are able to get things done despite being "unmotivated" that if they put in more work that they could get more things done. This also applies to grown-ups.

Traci's picture
Traci
Educational Coach at Northwest College Support

I totally agree that often we focus too much on intrinsic motivation. Sometimes, nothing is wrong with a little bribery!
However, I think educators focus too much on motivation, and not enough on teaching the process of how to start and complete a task (executive functions can be taught!). Sometimes educators forget this basic principle: motivation cannot take you beyond your ability.

kelly's picture

I love the article. We all have those days of not feeling motivated and just going threw the motions. I believe that awareness and reflection can be both a wonderful tool to ensure our students are getting our best each day.

Sabrina Taylor's picture

I can surely identify with many of the points you made in your article. I am a teacher of Spanish, and for years I've been faced with the challenge of unmotivated students. I realized that this lack of motivation among my students somewhat affected my motivation as well. I would be all fired up for the classes in which my students participated actively and truly loved Spanish, but I would feel so drained sometimes when my other classes make me feel like I am punishing them. From reading your blog I realize that I probably felt this way because I was depending on motivation to carry out my duties. Since it is something that I have to do I am going to start telling myself to "Just do it"...hopefully that works.
Prime example, I have an assignment due today that I have not been able to start. It's a course that I love, and do really well in, but I just couldn't find the motivation to do it. I played candy crush, cleaned my apartment, wasted hours on Facebook, but I just couldn't start. My mom called and asked if I finished. I told her I wasn't feeling motivated, and she said the same thing that you wrote about. "You don't have to feel like doing it; just know that you have to do it!" I reflected on her words for about an hour (more procrastination) and then I finally started. Within two hours I had my paper almost complete. Of course if I had waited for motivation I would probably still be sitting around waiting...
In a recent paper that I wrote on motivation I planned to solve motivational problems by shifting from extrinsic motivation to developing intrinsic motivation in my students. After reading your post I think that I will now attempt to make my students understand the need complete certain activities simply because they just have to be done, because realistically, we won't always be motivated to do everything at all times.
Truly practical and honest ?

Sabrina Taylor's picture

Traci, I've always focused on "bribery" but it doesn't work for the older kids....either that or I can't afford what they want :). While I agree that "motivation cannot take you beyond your ability" , I have to add that sometimes without motivation we never realize that ability. I did poorly at Spanish for my first two years in high school...failed miserably. One would have thought that I lacked the ability, but in my third year my teacher provided motivation that changed my life, and it was motivation that was not deliberate - he still has no idea he is part of the reason I teach Spanish today. Motivation does work, even if not for everyone.

Darlene's picture

Your article is great and much needed for already overly stressed teachers. We need to learn to balance life better, especially in education. The pressure upon teachers to raise every student's intrinsic motivation is tremendous, now even to the point of having teachers' incomes affected by performance based pay. Teacher burnout is high. Along this line as well, I've seen too many students stressed to the max trying to be over achievers when they needed to spend more time being a kid. Life's too short and education is more than the test score; it's a relationship. We move people intrinsically more by the relationship we form with them rather than the pressure we place upon them to strive for perfection.

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