29 November 2011

Motivation in Junior High Tech & Design

Recently I ran into a TED talk by Dan Pink about 21st century motivation. His main point is that money can only motivate in mundane tasks, and nowadays we have more complicated tasks that require a different kind of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I've noticed that a lot of the junior high experience is doing pretty mundane work over and over. On one hand I completely understand this. They're young, they can't handle too much creative work. They need the practice, until the principle starts to feel right. You underline enough subjects, double-underline enough verbs, and put parentheses around enough prepositional phrases, and eventually grammar takes hold.

These types of assignments provide very little, if any, autonomy. Students are all given the same sentences, and there is only one right answer to each problem. Maybe that's what works for the so-called core classes. Luckily I teach classes that allow, nay, demand creativity. Not every project is or should be so open, but even the most closed projects have room for some personality. They get to choose the pictures, the fonts, the colors, something with which they can exercise some authority, control; autonomy. (I really should post more about actual projects and results to show what I'm attempting, then I can get feedback, hopefully even some criticism.)

How in the world can you get 12-14 year olds to experience mastery? Ideally, with each project comes more freedom (autonomy) and challenge. After a one- or two-week unit, hopefully they have enough skills to take on a pretty open project. But when I say 'open' I don't mean it's free of parameters. (Someday maybe I'll rant about how parameters boost creativity.) I mean they can use as many or as few of the tools as they want, whatever helps them accomplish the challenge. (Reminder: I'm not saying I already do this, much less do it well, I'm saying what I hope to eventually be doing.)

The result? A sense of mastery, ideally. Two weeks ago they hadn't even heard of the program, and now they're using it to do things they never thought possible. Honestly, sometimes I feel like a failure because what they turn in is total crap (SketchUp Comics project... I'll post about it shortly), but the fact that they have so much fun with it, and are excited about it, means maybe they feel a bit of mastery, and that motivates.

'Purpose' refers to the idea that these kids are a part of something bigger, something that matters. Now this is a problem most teachers will face: "Why do we need to know this? When will I ever use it?" Most of us also know the answer to the question, we just can't word it in a way that the student will understand.

I'm not bashful in admitting that students love my class. I don't think it's much of an accomplishment, unless they love it and get something truly useful out of it. Worse still, until a student comes to me after graduating college and tells me that my class made a difference, I can never be sure my class is worth anything.

But anyway, the point is giving them a sense of purpose in order to achieve maximum motivation. The 'purpose' I've been attempting to provide is that their creations are actually used around the school for real things. For example, a play is coming up, my class creates designs, and the designs make it around the school. I see students pointing out their design to their friends. The trouble is to get more of those opportunities.

And one last comment...

20 Percent Time
Apparently at Google, engineers and programmers are supposed to spend 20 percent of their time working on non-work projects. They then present their non-work to their coworkers and bosses, and some of the best ideas that have come from Google, came from 20 Percent Time. Therefore, I'm going to try it out on my classes. Every Friday will be their 20 Percent Time, where they can work on anything they want, with no pressure to do anything in particular, as long as it's using something we use in the class or similar. We'll see how it goes with 12-14 year olds.

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