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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!


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