Motivating Students to “Do the Work” of Learning

Edu-speak is a language in which I am building my fluency. When I initially looked at this week’s reading, I thought: “ah, this will be a good review. I already know all about Project Based Learning and…yea, those other two.” Turns out, I am not as fluent in this particular dialect of Edu-speak as I thought that I was.

Project based learning or, the idea of offering learners the opportunity to become active participants in the process, is not a new concept, but gained momentum with the Montessori preschool movement in the early 20th century.  Founded by Maria Montessori, she believed that children learn “not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.”

Image Credit: Zulama

This idea about getting students to essentially do the work, i.e. conduct research, meet deadlines and altogether just be super great self-directed learners is really, to me, the ideal educational setting. In my own classroom, I remind my students that they should be working “much harder” than me. And in the now classic Edu-speak idiom, I remind them that I am not the “sage on the stage” but rather their “guide on the side”.

But what about when students (particularly in the secondary classroom) show reluctance to this approach, asking for more lecture so that they can again be passive in their learning? Because after all, PBL is a lot more work than taking notes while the teacher talks at you. I like what George Mayo did to energize his students about their projects. By creating a film festival in his community where students showcase – and vote – on the short films they made for his class, he recognizes that students need (and like) to have an authentic audience to showcase their work. I think I might just try this in my own community of learners with my English 10 “This I Believe” videos.

As for Problem and Challenge based learning, these are the two that are relatively new to me in name, but not necessarily in content. Similar to PBL, these two approaches ask students to again, be at the center of their own learning. The goal, according to David Gijbels, is to:

educate students to be able to understand and solve complex problems in a changing world”

I like the qualifier “in a changing world” because it addresses the reality of education in the 21st century: technology provides students the access to just about anything they can dream up. And so, the teacher is no longer the “deliverer of knowledge”. Now, one could argue, the teacher’s role is even more important – we are now tasked with teaching students the skills and savvy to negotiate, interpret and analyze the information they access. And what a ride it will be.

3 Replies to “Motivating Students to “Do the Work” of Learning”

  1. Hi Miriam,
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I agree that motivating students to become independent and to “do the work” can be difficult not only in the high school but also in the elementary school. Fostering independence and inquiry definitely need to be scaffolded and it needs to begin early on in their educational careers so that they have many opportunities to work on these skills.
    In the elementary, we definitely incorporate Project Based Learning into our lessons. However, I find that we have not quite moved into Problem or Challenge based learning. Two articles that I found helpful when thinking about how to implement and incorporate PBL and CBL into the classroom are and p. 9-15.

  2. Hi Miriam,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on project based learning. I like the quote that you mentioned – “guide on the side”. I also am glad to hear that there are more people discussing secondary student reluctance to change from passive note-taking. I feel you have nailed it with the concept of needing to ensure that there are authentic audiences for project based learning. The good new seems to be that many of our schools already have a framework for students to present to authentic audiences (events hosted at our schools on weekends, perhaps already existing film festivals, contests within or between schools, UN Days, or high school assemblies). I think there is an untapped resource in these events for project based learning to show up more frequently.

    Thanks again for your post and hope you have a great start to 2017.


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