This is the second of 3 posts looking into challenges at the heart of motivating children to learn in the classroom. In the first post I looked at how we can get confused when seeking to ‘engage’ children in lessons, with the danger therein that we might divert them from the actual intended learning outcome.
This situation arises partly from the sincere recognition that if children aren’t engaged ‘with’ an activity, then they aren’t going to learn from it, but it is also fuelled by a desire that ideally they will also be engaged ‘by‘ it, as this will do the job of motivating them to engage more generally, and also entice them to willingly come back for more in the future. We should also, I will keep saying, seek for school days to be an overall enjoyable phase of life.
During this post, I want to shine a light at an overlapping aspect of this situation; namely the frequently difficult line which teachers tread when trying to galvanise the disengaged children to become ‘engaged’. Effectively, we often actively seek to stimulate children out of their boredom – to wake them up and to kick them into fruitful participation. The world is full of opportunity for this these days – from multiple methods of gamification, to myriad technological and multi-media extravaganzas.
However, whilst we need our pupils to be stimulated into action, what we also most probably find is that children can often easily be overstimulated – at least as far as their ability to control their activity levels is concerned. Indeed, some children seem to have very little useful territory between being bored and disengaged, and being overstimulated and disruptive, and they will flip from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
All teachers will know the scenario portrayed – and I’m NOT just talking about children with a diagnosis. The children who excitedly shout things out when it’s not their turn, or who become oblivious to just how loud they are when talking in a group, or who take a joke too far, or laugh too long, or who push the boundaries of what’s physically intended from an activity. Whether it’s through them being too boisterous, giddy or ‘experimental’, there probably isn’t one of us who hasn’t at some point found ourselves uttering the frustrated words “Right! If you’re going to be like that then we won’t do this again!”, or simply shook our heads when reading a suggestion for an activity thinking “There’s no way I could do that with THAT class…”
So, overstimulation can lead to an unwelcome and disruptive level of hyperactivity, and if we are determined that we do want to give our children the most stimulating experiences that we can, and that we don’t want the enjoyment of the many to be spoiled by the few, then we need to build for ourselves some kind of CONCRETE LINING – a metaphorical security mechanism which will minimise the chances of things going too far, or which will enable us to easily press a class reset button to pull things back into a degree of order.
Such a label can sound somewhat draconian, but the beauty of it is that the stronger our ‘concrete lining’ is, the more ambitiously active and stimulating can be our style of teaching.
Perhaps a more creative way of picturing this would be to call it “THE WOK OF STIR-FRY TEACHING” You decide if that helps. The point of the metaphor is that our enthusiastic method for making a stir-fry is always going to be limited by the suitability of the container that we have to hand. It needs to be robust, spacious and appropriately shaped to allow whatever is inside to move, and it really needs to be something you can keep a firm grip on.
In reality, we should have multiple levels of these kinds of checks, controls and assurances. For example….
The school should have a transparent and smoothly enforced rule and consequence system; all teachers should mirror these in their classes – along with the establishment and rehearsal of all kinds of simple habitual routines which streamline functioning; and each activity should have the clearest possible outline of what is involved, what is expected and what can be expected. But out of all of this, I believe that the drilling of simple routines can be one of the most powerful levers for skillful and active teaching. Habits become things which we do without thinking, and indeed which can become quite hard not to do. Make them your best friend – but you will need to work at pushing them initially.
So is the solution then, to build rigorous walls of control mechanisms and then we can hit eager learners with every explosive teaching technique in our arsenal?
Well, probably not. Yes, I still support the idea of having out-and-out striking, memorable and ‘fun’ learning experiences, but I believe we have an emerging problem which hasn’t had an awful lot of research done on it in the classroom
Essentially, as with so many other areas of life, if we constantly use technology, exciting games and high-octane scenarios to turn the adrenaline levels up to 11, then we are gradually going to find that these techniques start to lose their efficacy. Human minds thrive on stimulation, and novelty is a key driver of this. Through sensory adaptation for example – the kinds of visceral multimedia experiences which seem so exciting the first time round can become humdrum and so ‘yesterday’.
Similarly, at a more cognitive level, if we are also continually over-working the “Hey! You’re never going to believe this!” trigger, then children will gradually habituate to the situation, and initially strong emotional responses will also fade with the law of diminishing returns, in a process of affective adaptation.
The bottom line to all this is that we’re either going to have to keep trying harder, or we’re going to have to keep trying something different. There is no shortage of anecdotal popular culture evidence to this effect. The kinds of movies and shows which blew people away 20 years ago just don’t cut it now, and we will all have experienced the ways in which many children these days just aren’t that interested in museum exhibits which don’t flash, buzz and interact.
There is another way of course. Whilst there will always be a place in classrooms (I think), for the audacious, eye-catching and memorable – for those moments which stay in the heart and mind for many a year, and which can act as pivotal emotional memories upon which to found a whole raft of cognitive learning – there is another direction entirely which we can go in to gain the emotional, behavioural and intellectual commitment of our pupils.