July 8th, 2015
Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.
X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins
Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda
Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.
In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.
So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.
Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.
In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:
Or this one?
This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.
Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.
Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:
- Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
- Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
- How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
- How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
- How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
- How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
- How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
- How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
- Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?
Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.
May the force be with you!