Motivation: being pulled through life.

I recently saw a post on an education website about motivating students. I didn’t know motivation in learning was a problem. In fact we really don’t have much to say on the matter. There’s no more powerful force in our life than the desire to learn. If that were not true we would never pull ourselves off the ground to balance on our two feet, or be compelled to touch the stove. The desire to learn sends us to the far reaches of the universe and down dark alleys. It consumes athletes, musicians and gamers, not just those comfortable in libraries reading books. In the first season of The Wire (a great TV series for understanding the complexity of urban life btw) a grade schooler was being tutored by his slightly older drug-dealing/cartaker brother. The exasperated older brother finally tried something different to help his younger brother figure out the math problem, so he gave him a street example that mirrored the problem. Rather than apples and baskets he used money, drugs, and dealing.” The kid wasted no time coming to the answer, like it were spit out of a spreadsheet. “How come you get it now and you can’t do it here,” the brother said pointing at the text book. “Cause, if I don’t get it right on the street, I get got.” That’s maybe the dark side, but that’s motivation.

Some years ago when I was first learning about video production someone told me that quality wasn’t important if someone wanted the content. In other words, if the information is relevant and timely the packaging doesn’t matter. Education theorists have talked about the difference between a banking and problem solving approach to learning for years. The banking approach is seldom relevant or timely, it assumes that if you teach a person something they will figure out a relevant use for it some day, which is sort of a “build it and they will come” approach to learning. The problem solving approach, of course, is founded on relevance. Does this mean the banking approach is wrong? No. You wouldn’t wait until a child is hurt before teaching them about safety. Yet, the safety lessons longest learned happen when they are connected to reality, when they touch the stove. When I consulted to manufacturing organizations they worked under similar divergent models that they called “push” and “pull.” It’s a system that makes the flow of parts and activities timely and relevant rather than being forced through the organization in a top-down fashion. As my old colleague Tim would say: “it’s easier to pull a rope than push it.” Every teacher understands this. However, many schools still labor under the weight of outdated manufacturing models that “push” curriculum, keeping them in the banking system of education. Irrelevant.

It’s no wonder that kids get labeled LD in this system, which is tragic because we all are born with the desire is to learn, to pursue things that are relevant to our worlds. Most of us don’t do well on tests or memorizing unrelated factoids, but give us a problem to solve and the time to do it . . .  In society’s frenzy to make the old system work by satisfying our prejudices about learning with testing, we leave those who just want to learn naturally in search of alternatives. Motivation cannot be imposed, it just needs direction. So, what are your “push” stories. What’s your passion? Was it supported in school?


About marty castleberg

I grew up on a farm along the banks of the Upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin. I overcame my school experience to earn a PhD in Organizational Learning at The Union Institute and University. I developed curriculum for adults and taught at a small liberal arts college. Consulting and research in organizational learning with a group that started at MIT segued into ten years of field research at Harley-Davidson, where I was their Learning Historian/Reflective Analyst. I left consulting to learn the craft of writing that went beyond academic studies, organizational narratives, and the occasional essay. I thought the result would be humorous travelogues and essays, but what eventually emerged was much different. With all the theoretical understanding that I amassed about living with LD, I still didn’t understand; that’s why Dave showed up. If you don’t count my eight guitars and four bikes, I live a very simple life in San Francisco.
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2 Responses to Motivation: being pulled through life.

  1. JBR says:

    My story is only marginally personal. Years ago, when I owned a manufacturing company in midwest America, we hired a young man through a personal connection between my plant foreman and his sister-in-law. She was a counselor in a Special Education programme in a high school and was keen on placing as many students as possible in real work situations. The young man we hired struggled at even filling out a job application and his counselor ended up walking him through each line of the form. We were told that any work we could give him would be appreciated and were told that it was thought he could be reliable, even if only as a floor sweeper.

    I met him for the first time shortly after we hired him and was told by my plant foreman that the young man was a very good worker and after was ‘walked through’ what was expected of him, was doing an exceptional job. I said we should give him additional responsibilities and see what happened. It was long before it became apparent that he could handle any task that was given to him. At one point, I told my plant foreman that we should sit down him and talk about his job and his school. At this meeting, I came out and asked him directly why he was in the ‘special education’ programme at his school. He said he was there because he wasn’t as smart as the other students in the school. I asked him how he knew this and he said that he had always been told by his parents and siblings that he wasn’t as smart.

    He was still at the company when I sold it six or seven years later and had progressed to being responsible for an entire department of the company. He clearly was able to learn, and even more clearly, was able to do so. The only thing that had held him back was the repeated messages from others (parents and siblings) that he would never be able to do anything other than the menial work that special needs people are often relegated to.

  2. Thanks J, I was an adult before I was told I was smart in a way that I could hear, and believe. (We are so conditioned early in life.) Hearing this, in fact, allowed me to aspire to something more. Motivation to learn more academic things, the things I felt were not accessible to me, was automatic. (BTW, I want to write a post about this person at some point, but I digress.)

    But more to the point, when I was researching adults with LD in preparation for writing Daveland I found the usual stuff: the high rate of suicide and drug abuse. What caught my attention was the consistent reporting of negative self-talk. If you’ve read Daveland you know how I dealt with this issue.

    Stay tuned to future posts where I will comment on many of the issues you raised in your thoughtful comment.

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