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Motivation Matters

"If a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune, for, though she be blind, yet she is not invisible." Franics Bacon

Challenge, Control, Situational Interest and Persistence

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Today I (Jim) saw a great lesson in an 8th grade classroom in Melbourne, Australia.  The teacher was a young teacher, who admitted that he tended to lecture to his students predominantly.  He had gone through a professional development session that introduced him to open-ended, challenging tasks, with some suggestions on how to ask questions of students, and how to push them to persist.  For a neophyte, he really did a great job.


First of all, he gave the students FIVE problems that all addressed the central ideas of mean, median, and mode, and how they each represented a set of scores.  Each of the problems differed in the challenge they afforded, and students were allowed to begin the lesson working on the problem where they felt comfortable.  Most groups began somewhere in the middle, but some started with very challenging problems and some began with relatively simple problems. 

The key to this strategy was, no matter where the students started, because THEY chose the level of challenge, they worked through the challenge to success.  When they finished their first problem, they moved onto a more challenging problem, building on this success.


At the end of the 50 minute period, all but one of the groups had solved the second-most challenging problem, and some had tackled a problem that the teacher made up on the spot that was at about an 11th grade level.  They were animated and engaged, though periodically like all 8th graders, they lapsed into non-mathematical socializing.  The teacher was a trooper, going around to each table, asking questions, posing conjectures about what the impact of changing the data would look like, and exhorting the students to persist and try more difficult problems.


Altogether, it was one of the best lessons I have seen that show how providing challenge (tough problems) with control (choice regarding what problem to begin with) can lead to situational interest, engagement and superior mathematical performance.  Not all students were excited about the problems, but many were, and several expressed that the problems were “very interesting!” Good on ya mate!


More from down under as my jet lag wears off!


Motivation Down Under

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I (Jim) am off to Melbourne Australia to research classrooms and meet with teachers on a project with Peter Sullivan and Jill Cheeseman of Monash University, and Doug Clarke and Anne Roche of Australian Catholic University.  We will be studying how teachers increase the challenge of the tasks they assign students, and the factors that encourage persistence. I will be sharing some of the stories I come across from teachers down under with you in this blog over the next couple of weeks.

It will be interesting to see how our book translates to a different audience. The teachers there have copies and we will be using the principles and strategies we cover in the book to help them challenge their students, and frame the big issues of motivation in local, Australian contexts. 

Of course some of the great research on student motivation has been done in Australia.  Herb Marsh, Dennis McInerny, and of course Peter Sullivan, have all contributed deeply to our understanding of motivation and how it plays out individually and socially. I expect to learn a lot from my friends.

A New Story From Jim: Workshop Gone Awry!

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The other day, I was in a room full of teachers who, in a fit of poor judgment, had asked me to do a workshop on learning fractions.  I assigned a problem on fraction division and was walking around the room listening to teachers’ conversations as they made sense of the problem.  I just chanced to hear one teacher mutter, “God I hate this.”

Now, those of you who know me understand that I cannot pass up an opportunity to confront issues of motivation whenever they come up.  “Hold on!” I stopped the conversation, “Why do you hate division by fractions so much? Where did this come from?”   

 Sheepishly, the teacher reflected on the years of frustration she had had in her mathematical experiences, and how she just inverted and multiplied to get the correct answer.  She was frustrated that I was forcing her to try the problems without this familiar (and useful, to be truthful) procedure, and projected that this experience was similar to all those demoralizing experiences she had growing up.

 This was a shocker.  My intent was not to frustrate the teachers (too much…). My intent was to get them to work through the problems from the perspective of a 5th grader, without their adult knowledge of fractions to support them.  Well, I got what I had asked for.  This teacher, upon feeling frustrated, began to develop what researchers call “situational interest.” But, like her 5th graders, her situational interest was negative instead of positive.  This struck home to me, that whenever a person is engaged in some difficult mathematical task, they learn both the content—how to divide by fractions and how to think about models that use iterative units to compare one fraction to another—and the motivation—in this case that division by mathematics was frustrating and non-interesting.   

 I brought this up and used it as an opportunity to reflect on the learning of my teachers’ students.  How do students react when presented with challenging tasks?  Do they relish the challenge?  Do they feel frustrated and upset?  Why would two children from the same classroom react in different ways to ostensibly the same task?  We used the fraction division task the teachers were engaging in as an example.  Some teachers said that they enjoyed trying new ways to solve the problem and that doing so gave them new insight into the mathematics and especially into children’s mathematics.  Some, like my frustrated teacher, really disliked the task and felt it did them no good.  And some disliked the task but felt that it was important to engage in it so that they would be better prepared for their students’ reaction to both content and motive.

 Our conversation brought up three key motivational patterns that each of us sees every day.  Some students are right in line with our instruction, learning and liking it—feeling successful, relishing the challenge, and persevering through the frustration.  These students appear Intrinsically Motivated, and these positive behaviors show it.  Some students just don’t like the task. For whatever reason, they don’t see it as an interest, and don’t see the utility of it. These students need some social motivation or even some reward or contingency to help them engage and even have the possibility of gaining interest in the task. They appear to be Extrinsically Motivated.  The third group of students plug along, not too excited, but on board motivationally because they see the mathematics as being Useful to them.  These students appear to have learning goals and positive self-regulation strategies that help them stay engaged even when they personally don’t like the activity.

 In reality, all classrooms exhibit these three patterns (even professional development workshops that I run).  To be honest, each of us exhibits these patterns for different activities in our lives.  A key challenge for us as teachers is to recognize that each pattern has its own adaptive advantages to the children (or adults…) and that different pedagogical approaches will help students engage and succeed.

 Like we say in our book, there are no quick fixes.  Motivating students requires knowing about the sources of students’ likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations, and their predilections.  Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can tailor their instruction to the needs of each of her/his students a little bit better each day.

 Back to our story.  Because we stopped and discussed my teacher's frustration in a matter of fact way, with no blame assigned to her, collectively we helped the teacher overcome her frustration and re-define her motivation to include the usefulness of the task for reaching her students who were having difficulty understanding how one can divide a smaller number by a larger number and how to expand their operation sense to include fractions in this scheme.  She still didn't much like the task, but the overall activity she reclassified as useful for her own goals as a professional.

 Best wishes in YOUR struggles.  More stories of our struggles are on the way!



Telling your Stories: Motivating and Engaging Mathematics Learners

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When Jim and I wrote this book, we viewed our role to be translators. We wanted to digest and share what research says about students' motivation and engagement, and we wanted to share in a way that would make the research seem relevant for mathematics teachers. If an idea wasn't "research-based," we didn't include it. However, the research on motivation and engagement is evolving, and we haven't learned all that we need to know about motivating and engaging learners from research.

We hope that the readers of this book are willing to share stories with us about how they have successfully engaged and motivated their students in mathematics class. You can share stories in a few ways:

1. Contact us! Write down your story and send it via email. My email is -- If you send a story, let me know whether you're open to us publishing it on this blog. (We will give you full credit for the ideas!)

2. Comment on this blog. You can type a story in comments here on this blog and share.

We hope to hear from you.

Sincerely, Mandy

Overwhelming Response

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Wow! Our book has only been in the bookstore for 24 hours, but the folks at NCTM say it is one of the best sellers at the Annual Meeting! 

We have a session on motivation at 12:30 today in the convention center.  Later today, Mandy and I will be signing books at 3:00 in the NCTM bookstore. We hope to see you there.

As feedback from readers is beginning to come back, we are deeply moved by the degree of acceptance our work is getting.  We have book discussion groups starting in places like Atlanta and Juneau, and folks have taken the time to tell us their stories--so inspiring.

This blog is for you!  Please drop us a line, tell us a story of your successes and struggles with motivation in your mathematics classroom, ask questions, and make comments so that together, we can help each other better serve our students.

Welcome To Motivation Matters!

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This blog is intended to update readers of Motivation Matters, Interest Counts on new ideas in motivation and mathematics learning.  We will be providing new stories of practice, synopses of new research findings, and new ideas for improving teaching and learning that address students’ interests, goals, and social needs.

You, as readers, are encouraged to be authors here.  If you have stories to share or points to make, please drop a note in the comment box.

We will be updating information regularly and we hope you participate in this community.


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