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Education professor writes prescription for teachers to succeed: motivate, motivate, motivate

September 27, 2010
David Shernoff

David Shernoff

As students settle in for their annual autumn return to classrooms, the eternal challenge for teachers is to cultivate the most effective learning environment possible.

Laurence McMillin knew this.

McMillin taught English at the private Webb School in Claremont, Calif., where he assigned “Oedipus Rex,” “Faust,” “Don Quixote” and other provocative fiction as well as providing his high school students with writings from minds the likes of Albert Einstein, Saul Bellow and Abraham Maslow.

His passion to “inspire students to embrace their own unique callings in life” meant the world to many young pupils, including a 1985 graduate named David Shernoff.

Shernoff, now a professor of educational psychology at NIU and recipient of the 2010 College of Education award for Exceptional Contributions to Scholarly and Creative Activity, has devoted his own career in education to helping shape more teachers like McMillin.

The key – the pinnacle to which all teachers should aspire, new and veteran – is motivation.

“Mr. McMillin was an extraordinary teacher who created a course that was the extension of his life philosophy of individuality,” Shernoff says.

It instilled in students a “holy curiosity,” a term coined by Einstein to describe a “loving interest” or a “cosmic religious feeling” that creates intrinsic motivation, the desire to learn something simply to learn something.

Such an innate inquisitive nature supersedes motivators such as fear and even ambition, stated Einstein in various writings and speeches, and stands “at the cradle of all true art and true science.”

Such emotions also are more powerful than rewards, Shernoff says, which modern research shows come with a cost. Take the reward away, he says, and the motivation stops.

Working for rewards also limits creativity and conceptual understanding.

Assisted by Stephen Tonks, an assistant professor in educational psychology at NIU, educational psychology master’s degree students Brett Anderson and Cedrick Dortch, Shernoff conducted a pilot study last spring on high school students’ classroom engagement at DeKalb High as well as at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill.

Combining ESM and videotaping to identify instructional practices that teachers used when students became highly engaged and excited about learning, their preliminary results suggest that:

  • Teachers can have an extremely powerful influence on students’ engagement in classrooms.
  • Optimal learning environments feature a number of simultaneous conditions consistent with and building on those theorized to produce flow.

Those conditions include:

  • a high challenge and a high level of support to reach it;
  • clarifying the importance and goals of the activity;
  • the use of materials to solve problems or fashion products;
  • interactivity
  • positive relations among teacher and students; and
  • opportunities to receive performance feedback.

SHERNOFF AND HIS COLLEAGUES now await the decision of the Spencer Foundation to fund a continuation of their pilot study in a larger-scale research project.

They realize, of course, that their work is already adding to a well-established notion of the primacy of natural interest for learning and development.

Even before an influx of research demonstrating this principle in the second half of the 20th century, philosophers predating Einstein – including John Dewey and the 18th century French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau – observed and wrote expressively on it.

More recently, Robert Persig referred to it as “a ferocious force” in his classic book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Shernoff, who wrote a book about McMillin titled “The Individual-Maker: A Master Teacher and his Transformational Curriculum,” studies moments of “holy curiosity” to help teachers understand when they truly are connecting with students.

His first opportunity to conduct motivational research was provided in his master’s program by Janine Bempechat at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Today, some 20 years later, the two are co-editing a volume of research to be published by Teachers College Record on engagement in empirically supported educational models to guide future innovations.

Following his master’s program, Shernoff stayed in the Boston area to teach children with special needs.

Idealistic about motivation, he soon became disillusioned with the multitude of reinforcement systems for “classroom management” to control students’ behaviors in the special education environment. When those failed, Shernoff says, the most common response was to increase a child’s medication, which most of the children were prescribed.

“These kids were manipulated to death because that was the only way to control them. They were also drugged – it seemed like the answer was always, ‘Up their meds.’ The next day, they walked into class more docile and easier to control, but also more passive. It turned very colorful children with a lot of personality into zombies. It was kind of sad – these were 13-year-olds,” he says.

“It made me question: Were we really doing this for their benefit – or for ours – to make them more manageable? When the external constraints we tried to impose were not strong enough, were we resorting to ‘chemical straightjackets?’ ”

Around this time, Shernoff read the book, “Flow,” by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow is an optimal psychological state occurring when individuals stretch the limits of their skills to meet a difficult challenge, as reported during the peak performances of athletes and when scientists and artists are doing their best work.

For example, composers have described a shift in consciousness that occurs when music is “flowing from the depth of their souls, stirred by inspiration, like being swept away by a current or river.”

The difference between these optimal experiences in intrinsically interesting activities and the predominance of external constraints in the special education environment struck him: “There was such a contrast between what Csikszentmihalyi was talking about and what I was seeing in the field.”

THAT WAS ALL THE MOTIVATION that Shernoff needed to apply to a doctoral program in education at the University of Chicago to study with Csikszentmihalyi.

In applying Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory and favored methodology to student engagement in classrooms, he began using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) in which study participants are paged at random moments in time to report snapshots of their subjective experience.

Much of Shernoff’s collaborative work has shown that most adolescents lack engagement in their academic classes, but come alive during and report higher levels of flow during organized after-school activities involving the arts and sports.

One hopeful idea is to integrate school and after-school environments, Shernoff says, or at least to have the in-school- and out-of-school worlds inform each other.

Research suggests that the non-voluntary nature of academic classes alone would pose a motivational challenge to classroom learning, offering one explanation for the greater engagement youth report in structured extracurricular activities

“I don’t believe that’s the only reason, though. Other factors over which schools and teachers have more control might also play a strong role in an environment’s motivational pull,” he says.

Educational enrichment activities are “usually more relevant to kids’ experience, whether the curriculum module is about agriculture, or why planes fly, or what causes pollution,” as reported by Po Bronson after interviewing Shernoff for an online story in Newsweek.

“Second, they invite participation. They’re often project-based. Third, kids can learn without feeling like they’re being ranked on a bell curve and labeled smart or dumb. Kids’ natural thirst for knowledge emerges.”