Sunday, February 21, 2016

How a new school changed my views on motivation

Depot students work on their balsa airplane experiment.
I've always been a big fan of alternative education, innovative ways to teach and new kinds of schools. I've always thought that the way we run school is the biggest problem we have in education: traditional school crushes students natural desire to learn. But I think I'm going through a paradigm shift, again, and my views on education and motivation are changing.

Since reading Daniel Pink's classic, Drive, I've been convinced that if we just give kids more autonomy, mastery and purpose (A.M.P.), they'll automatically flourish. I tested out some of these principles in my mastery-based biology class (with lots of encouraging results), and here at the Depot I've seen more evidence of the power of A.M.P.. We have students who were struggling in the traditional school, but are now thriving in our model. They have successful internships at vet clinics, law offices, schools, computer repair shops, photography studios, restaurants, and hospitals. They're writing novels, building bridges, planning field trips, growing mushrooms, studying languages and math online, building arcade stations, cooking delicious weekly breakfasts and soups for the school, and more.

But my engagement numbers in biology were not quite as high as I had hoped, and at the Depot, though there are many students thriving, there are just as many struggling. Nearly half our students struggle with attendance or academics. Nearly half have major social/emotional issues that leave them unable to take advantage of the autonomy our model provides.

It seems there's more to motivation than autonomy, mastery, and purpose. There's more to helping students succeed than increasing autonomy and real world learning.

I found this cool article by Piers Steel, in which he gives evidence for an alternative model of motivation (called TMT), which looks like this:

"Utility" is motivation. In this equation, "E" is expectancy, which includes whether you think you can do the task. "V" is how much you value the task. The funny looking "T" thing is the uppercase Greek letter, gamma, and it represents impulsivity and distractibility. Finally, "D" is the delay--how long you have to complete the task. Applying this formula, the way to motivate kids is to increase their confidence and competence, make it meaningful, decrease their impulsivity, and make the deadlines shorter.

I'm not sure how A.M.P. fits into this model (maybe it all gets lumped into "V"),  but in any case, I've had this gnawing feeling all year that my mental model--my paradigm--was missing something. Now I see that it's missing "E" and gamma. Many of my students either lack the skills they need, believe they lack them, or have other factors in their lives that make them unable to do the tasks. They have burdens, obstacles, and deficiencies that lower E or increase gamma.

This is why my paradigm is shifting: even in an innovative school where they have all the autonomy and real world connections they could dream of, many still struggle to find the motivation they need to succeed.

And this means we need to continue to ramp up supports. We've got the V thing taken care of with A.M.P., now let's work on E. We've set up a school that allows for highly valuable learning tasks, now let's get the kids to the place where they can take advantage of that.

The problem with modern schooling is not just a lack of autonomy and meaningful work, it's also a problem of a lack of supports for students who need it.

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