What Motivates Learning?

The teacher asks a compelling question (at least he thought it was) and the students just stare.  Or worse, they don’t even hear the question because their minds are far away.  The student called upon dutifully reads from John Donne, but the rest of the class, again, is a million miles away.  One of the basic laws of learning is that the learner must be engaged, attentive, “there” in the class.  How does a teacher bring this basic requirement to pass?  What constitutes the conditions for an attentive student?

Having taught for a quarter of a century, I thought I would have the answer by now.  I thought that with enough experience and experimentation I would find the silver bullet that would set all minds to attentive consideration of the lesson at hand.  But I regularly still see the dull eye, the glazed look, the mind steering the body toward anything other than careful attention to the subject at hand.  While I think there are answers to be considered outside the scope of my own teaching choices, such as the effects of culture, technology, etc., I wish to spend some time in an series of extended meditations on the following brief mind map I have been considering regarding “The Motivation to Learn.”  Input is greatly valued.

Here is the mind map as it stands.  (If I update it, I will change it here.)

151214 mindmap of educational motivations 2

The first dichotomy is between internal and external motives.  There is some overlap even in these large categories.  Some internal motivations are affected by external ones, and vice versa.  I will try to spend some time on the external motivations, but I think the internal ones are significantly more important and harder to clarify, so most of my time will focus on these.  Like many of my blog plans, this may all get set aside at some point, but this is the plan for now.

At the heart of my meditations on motivation is the desire to cultivate virtue in my students.  I want them to want the right things: to love all things rightly.  Some will wonder at the position in my map of “Love” being at the bottom.  But I do believe it to be at the bottom or underlying everything else.  It is the deepest root.  I don’t believe it to be from without, but rather from within the student.  It is necessarily damaged by the damaged nature of the student, but it is there, can be cultivated, and should be meditated upon by those who would teach in a manner aimed at the humanity or soul of the student.  I think it is a meditation that saves the soul of the teacher at least as much as that of the student.  Teaching to glazed eyes kills the soul of the teacher as much as the one with the glazed eyes.

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