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Topic: motivation

On Stickers

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

A couple years ago, a friend of mine, who’s a violin teacher, had a huge realization while working with a younger student. He gave his student a dog sticker to congratulate his student for learning something hard. The student got sooooo excited. Reflecting on this, he realized that the sticker gave his student a sense of completion.

No one ever gives us stickers as adults. But how deeply satisfying would it be to get one—to have someone return an assignment to us with a little colorful sticker on the top. To have the feeling that we had really finished something.

After my friend’s sticker realization, I started giving my math students stickers all the time. I believe I did this because I wanted to give my students a sense of completion. And I wanted them to feel that math, like stickers, could be sparkly, colorful, bite-sized, and fun. A source of delight, excitement, pride, and surprise. I didn’t think I was using stickers as a reward—more as a way to celebrate their work.

Now, after reading all this recent research about how using any reward can undercut students’ intrinsic motivation, I am asking myself, are stickers wrong? Am I actually creating a situation where I’m training my students to expect and be dependent on immediate gratification? I wonder if I am preventing them from learning to persist through struggle and confusion without me sitting there ready to cheer them on and give them a sticker at the first opportunity.

I’m not sure I can wean myself off of stickers completely. But maybe I’ll try to give them to my students the same way I’m trying to learn to give praise: intermittently, and only for things that the student actually had to work hard to learn.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop carrying my secret sticker stash around with me everywhere I go.

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Topic: motivation

Power of Praise (3)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

And one last awesome bitlet from Po Bronson’s praise article. Persistence is not only an act of will, but also “an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.” Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis actually found this brain circuit.

…[This circuit] monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.”

…What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?…

“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

First, I wonder how these findings relates to researchers such as Edward Deci (author of Why We Do What We Do)’s work on intrinsic motivation and autonomy support. Despite the fact that dangling a “carrot” in front of someone is supposed to increase their motivation, Deci found that many, if not most, reward systems weaken intrinsic motivation instead of strengthening it. How does the “reward” of praise relate to his findings? If we reward students with praise less frequently, does that strengthen intrinsic motivation?

Related posts: Power of Praise (1)
Power of Praise (2)

Topic: motivation

“Simple, but not easy” (2)

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

I’ve been reflecting for a while why we need to be told that things are easy. I stumbled across Rafe Esquith’s discussion of the same conundrum in his book There Are No Shortcuts. I recommend the whole passage in its entirety (it’s in Chapter 2), but I wanted to share some of the highlights here:

…We have books entitled Algebra Made Easy. Well, algebra isn’t easy. Success at algebra takes hundreds of hours of hard work and disciplined study. I began to identify the problem the first year I decided to teach my sixth-graders algebra. They had mastered all of their arithmetic skills. They had a terrible time conquering algebra.

… then one night we went to a concert to hear Lynn Harrell play Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. After the concert, forty-five of my students were invited backstage to meet the world-renowned cellist. […] One of them, a beginning cellist, timidly asked Harrell the question that would come to define part of my class mission. Peter looked up and said shyly, “Mr. Harrell, how can you make music that sounds that beautiful?”

Lynn had the answer I had been looking for. “Well,” he said as he squatted down to look Peter right in the eye, “There are no shortcuts.

… When class began fifty-odd hours later, I laid out a better plan. There was a banner stretched across the front of the room proclaiming THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. …from that day on, the dream [of life beyond the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Los Angeles] became closer, because that motto changed the way my students attacked their work. It brought a new approach to learning. …We decided to lengthen our school day. … [The students] spoke of sacrifice. … They not only rejected the culture [of everything being easy], they created one of their own.

I haven’t yet seen anyone else write so honestly about how challenging it can be to motivate students to persist when faced with difficult material. And I’m inspired by how Esquith succeeded in challening his students to do something that really isn’t easy. (I also think that this is the only stories I’ve ever read that connects the two things I do almost every day—teaching algebra and playing the cello!)

Thank you, Rafe Esquith, for all the work you do to inspire students to master what is not easy, and for sharing your experience with others.

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Ana Reynales earns her BA at age 82!!!!!

Topic: motivation

“Simple, but not easy.”

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

In her book Julie and Julia, Julie Powell makes a distinction between simple and easy. For example, making Potage Parmentier (French potato soup) from Julia Child’s recipe is simple—but not easy.

I think math is the same. After about eighteen years of doing algebra, I’d say it is now simple to me. But the process of learning algebra was not easy.

So why do we seem to crave reassurance that anything we might want to attempt is actually easy? Maybe we tell people “It’s easy!” to communicate that something is possible and that they are capable of doing it. Maybe it’s a way to take the sting out. Maybe in a culture of pigeon-holed specialization, we’re surrounded by too many tasks that just seem impossible to attempt without specializing in them ourselves.

But by saying this, it seems we’re sending a message to each other that we can only do things that are easy—not things that are difficult. And many things that are worth doing are, in fact, not so easy.

Maybe the real message we want to send isn’t, “this is easy,” but “this is possible and that you are capable of doing it.”

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Simple, but not easy (2)
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