TITLE: Meaning, Motivation, and Learning AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 21, 2009 3:12 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In my previous entry, I talked about how hard teaching is. When you consider everything -- from the human psychology to human communication, from differences in student background to differences in student temperament, from home life to campus life, oh yeah, and course content -- students and teachers face a big challenge. That's why I liked the pair of Lost in Syntax articles so much. They remind teachers about all of the other things students face. Even people who teach face these challenges when they become students. Mark Guzdial also blogged after reading "Lost in Syntax". He focused on the source of a particular disconnect that students and teachers may experience in the classroom: what the course content means. Some students want to build things, and for them meaning comes down to a set of practical skills and a set of engineering practices. Some students want to explore, and for them meaning comes down to a different set of practical skills and a way of thinking about questions and experiments. When the instructor of a course adopts one of these stances and uses its language, she connects well with one group of students and often leaves the other group confused and disoriented. Some people, even a certain kind of university prof, think all this talk of meaning is falderol. You take a course, you learn the content, and you move on. That attitude ignores reality. Even when all the things Wicked Teacher talks about go right, people learn best when they are motivated. And people are most motivated when they know why they are learning what they are learning, and when that "why?" fits the meaning they seek. The best teachers start (or try to) with what a course means for students and build the learning experience from there. They also start with what the students already know, or think they know, about the course material. By using the students as the baseline for the course, instructors are more able to motivate students and more likely to engage them in a way that creates real learning. When we use the abstractions of our discipline or our own interests as the baseline, we may well teach a course that excites us, but it will often fail to teach students much of anything. Good teachers start with what a course means for students, but they don't stop there. The teacher's job is to lead students forward, to help students see bigger ideas than they can initially conceive. Even at the level of practical skills and tools, we need to draw students forward to skills and tools they don't yet appreciate when they first enter the class. Starting with what students know and care about is the way that we build the foundation -- and the trust -- they need to learn beyond their imagination. That's what education is. This is a tall order for any teacher and why I called my previous entry "Teaching is Hard". It is a whole lot easier to build a course atop the discipline's abstractions or one's own interests than to try to understand the students' minds. Even even when we try to start with the students, it is not an easy task. Some people say that starting anywhere but the intellectual foundation for the discipline is pandering to the students. But starting with student interests and motivations is not pandering at all -- unless we stop there. -----