Intrinsic Motivation and the Relevance of History

My new school has a regular “Talking About Teaching” professional development opportunity for teachers. Essentially, it’s a scheduled time for teachers to come and share thoughts and ideas about the craft of teaching. It’s one thing that drew me to the school. Today’s topic was “Student Motivation”—a topic I’ve thought a lot about.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but it left me thinking for much of the day about the interconnection of two topics that form the title of this post: intrinsic motivation and the relevance of history. We talked a lot about the role of grades and other extrinsic motivators in school, though there seemed to be general agreement that we’d like for our students to be more intrinsically motivated to learn—to play with ideas, to inquire and explore their interests.

I pointed out that, as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive, we all tend to be more intrinsically motivated when we a) have some measure of autonomy in the task at hand; b) can observe ourselves progressing toward mastery of it; and c) appreciate its larger purpose. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of schools often serves to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

At this point, a colleague raised the concern that few students—and even some teachers—don’t necessarily understand the purpose of their studies in school. Why, for instance, do students need to know a particular equation in math class? Or (to reference one of my own lessons from today) why do they need to know the significance of itinerant preachers in the Great Awakening?

We batted that idea around for a while, and there were a variety of ideas. In the end, though, we seemed to reach a general consensus: at the end of the day, students probably don’t need to know all of those things. Many agreed that much of the “stuff” that we teach in our courses is not absolutely essential for students to learn. (This brought to mind my recent post on “The Siren Call of Coverage.”)

This has me reflecting on curriculum. Once we acknowledge that the sky would not fall if some things were cut, then paring back the content of the curriculum would seem to be a logical step toward remedying any perceived deficiencies. In our case, if we find that our students suffer from a lack of intrinsic motivation and don’t see the purpose of what they’re studying, we need to address that. Trimming the content covered would kill two birds with one stone:

  1. It would provide time for self-directed learning, in which students—under the supervision of teachers, to be sure—could pursue topics of interest to them, hopefully learning to ask questions, pursue their interests, and discover meaning for themselves. Even in a field that is not necessarily a student’s true passion, he or she may find a particular topic or question that is intriguing, perhaps sparking a lifelong hobby.
  2. By covering less material, teachers would have the opportunity to pursue deeper learning, which would helpfully hope students understand the value of their studies. For my part, I want my students to consider why history matters today—how historical narratives (even historically inaccurate ones) shape our contemporary worldview and how historical thinking skills can help us make sense of the time in which we live. When I feel pressure to get to chapter 15 by Christmas, though, that’s difficult to do.

It is admittedly something of a cliche, but I have nevertheless long appreciated Yeats’s famous adage that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Particularly in history, if the approach is just “one damn thing after another,” only the rare student will have their “fire” stoked. (We history teachers all know these kids—the ones who geek out over trivia while the other students slump in their seats and roll their eyes.) In the traditional coverage approach, everyone’s pails get filled… but most are unceremoniously dumped out later, after the extrinsic motivation (the test) is removed. Whatever small fires we managed to start along the way, most are extinguished in the deluge.


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