Why do people want to do things?
I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. If you believe that teaching is about more than simply imparting knowledge and skills, that it is also about inspiring students to achieve greatness through academic study, then you have to ask yourself: how do you give students experiences that will make them want to learn your subject and then apply it in a future career?
For many educators, the answer is often to show students that the subject is beautiful. For others, it is to show students that the subject is useful. Educators talk about motivation, and sometimes intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. These are all very useful conversations. I think they are also insufficient.
Let me give an example from my own life. I love playwriting. I wrote some plays that I consider decent while in college, and I would love to write some more plays and perhaps to see them performed. Yet I “don’t have time” to keep writing plays. Why not? Well, for one thing, I have a job doing something I love—education—and that job probably pays better. But I could still write plays as a hobby! I don’t, because there are other things I can do for fun, and because most of my friends are math/science-oriented and so I don’t have a community of people to talk to about it and encourage me. Instead, I go to see a lot of plays each year and content myself with occasionally imagining what plays I would write if I had the time.
My point is that even if someone likes doing something, that is not enough for them to dedicate their time to it. Just as we recognize this fact in our own lives, we should think about the many factors that play into our students’ decisions, both consciously and unconsciously:
- Do they see it as a productive/gainful use of their time?
- Do they have a supportive peer group? Will they be able to do it with others?
- Will it give them social status?
- Can they see themselves doing it in the future? Is that future self someone they like and admire? Do they have role models?
- Is there an established pathway for doing it that they understand?
- Do they expect success at it?
I believe that focuses on curriculum or study skills or content knowledge are all good steps, but they are insufficient to the task. Just because students learn that mathematics is useful for building bridges does not mean that they see themselves doing it. We need to consider the whole context surrounding a child, the whole environment that might encourage them to become a scientist (or not), and how we can make it more likely that they see math and science as a viable pathway.
Ultimately, I think we need to build their self-identity as scholars. To me, self-identity goes much farther than just motivation, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. Motivation plays a part, but self-identity is about how they see themselves. Indeed, I claim that without a resilient self-identity, all of our efforts to teach knowledge and skills are less effective.
Of course, saying that we should accomplish all these things is a far cry from specific proposals to do so. I hope to explore more about self-identity in future posts over the coming weeks: to try to give a better definition, and to give concrete thoughts for how to help students develop it.