Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Bicycle Theory- 5 Ways I hope to Foster Motivation in my Classroom

The new school year is right around the corner, and as I embark on my 6th year as a educator I have been reflecting on ways to improve my craft. 

As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to increase student motivation and buy-in. In an ideal world, students would be excited to learn the sake of learning. They would want good grades because that will lead to graduation and scholarships and a university of their choice which will then lead them to a prosperous life. All of these things sound wonderful, don't they? News flash- we do not live in an ideal world. As a high school teacher, I have to deal with academic apathy on an everyday basis. Critics may say, "If you are preparing and executing student-centered and engaging lessons, there will always be buy-in and high student motivation." They raise a good point. However, this is unrealistic. Not every single lesson in every single class of every single day can  be engaging to every single student.

I have come to ponder the idea of motivation based on cultural experience and expectations. As a Mexican-American woman, is my own self-efficacy and motivation tangled in the culture and customs I was raised with? Was it simply my parents and family? How does society play into it? All of these questions have left me reeling as I attempt to crack the code needed to keep my students highly motivated. The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that the key to motivation lies less in a single cultural experience but more in that of the overall human experience.

Where does motivation start?  One of my very first memories of motivation is learning to ride a bike. I am sure many people can relate to the experience. This was something I wanted, and no matter how many times I fell off-- I got right back on. Why did I want to ride the bike in the first place? I guess it was to keep up with my friends, to get around the neighborhood, and to enjoy the freedom of movement. I feel like this is motivation in its purest form.

All of these things were natural rewards for mastering the skill. Most importantly they were intrinsic and sustaining. I would never run out of places to go or things to see. Once I excelled, a new level of bike riding would unlock. It was a never ending reward system. First I started off with riding corner to corner. Once I mastered that I was able to go around the block. Next, was to the busy street and back, and before I knew it, I was going all the way to the park.

This experience of mine, I feel, is universal. Go into any neighborhood of any race, culture, and class, and there will be people who have had the same experience of learning to ride a bike. Sure, the type and quality of the bike will change, maybe the amount of freedom one has to ride the bike would differ, but most people would be able to tell the story of how they felt when they first rode steady and strong on their own, and more importantly, they will be able to share the positive emotional attachment to that moment.
Think about it this way: Once we learned to ride our bikes, did we just stop?

So, why don't we teach like we are showing students how to ride a bike? So much of education is focused on an end result-- higher education and a career. What if we stopped focusing so much on where students were going, and more on the vehicle through which they would use to get there, the vehicle being their education? Isn't an ideal education just like riding a bike? First we learn easier skills that we then can build upon and challenge to be able to go faster and further. Yes, the destination is still important, but if we took more time and energy to help students see the joy in the journey, maybe more students would stay in school...or on their bikes as the metaphor goes.

I know I sound like just another idealistic educator who talks a lot but doesn't actually say anything, but I really feel like I have something here. How do we build this idea that the process of learning is just as important as the end result in our classrooms, schools, and communities? What can I do to ignite the intrinsic motivation of my students?

While thinking of this issue, I came up with a small list of things I can do in my classroom to help students stay motivated more naturally:

1. Allow students to compete with themselves. Give students some form of an assessment at the beginning of the year, semester, unit, and show them their own personal growth as they master more skills and content.
2. Help students to make personal and academic goals, and provide a time when they can develop ideas and plans for how they can accomplish their goals.
3. As the year progresses and students learn more, allow them more privileges, so they see the connection between learning and gaining.

4. Use visuals in the classroom to show how much students have learned and accomplished throughout the year to inspire pride and a positive self-image.
5. Be transparent with students about how I am continuing my own education, and  what are the steps I take to better myself as a life long learner. 

I am hoping to use the above list in my classroom this year, and to help my students make a paradigm shift about education and the part they play in their own journey. At the very least, I want students to learn that education is more than just a rocket, meant to blast off and drop them off in their future, rather it is a vehicle they will be using for the rest of their lives. We all have that dusty, rusty bike in our garage that we use from time to time. We must teach students that education is like that bike, Every now and then, when we need to, we must get that bike out- dust it off and jump on it, ready for a new adventure. 

I hope all the educators out there have a great school year and remember the joy of teaching is in the journey of becoming the best, not the moment when you believe you have finally arrived.