I have just finished reading a really fascinating article called How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules. The main gist of the article is that throughout history underdogs have had unbelievable success when they decide to compete on their own terms rather than conventional terms. In the David vs Goliath battle David
hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine
rather than battling toe to toe with Goliath. Of course, he also chose to fight with a sling and stones rather than swords.
The article then goes on to describe a breathtaking array of examples where the underdog won for two main reasons (the two parts of the insurgent’s creed): being willing to go against the conventions of society (do what is “socially horrifying) and being willing to work harder than anyone else (which takes courage). In the end victory in these examples came down to effort.
Effort can trump ability – legs … can overpower arms – because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.
Threaded throughout the article is a story about a middle school girls basketball team that enjoyed incredible success despite being inexperienced and not very skilled. Their secret was the full court press. In short they tried harder than the other team. When there was a turnover they didn’t run back to their side of the court to defend, they tried to get the ball back. They didn’t bother covering the person throwing the ball, instead they focused their energies on getting to the ball before the other players. They played by their own rules and had incredible success as a result. The article goes on to describe the career of a college coach called Rick Pitino who went on to use the full court press to win championships with teams that didn’t have many all star, potential NBA, style players on them. It was obviously a very successful strategy, but it was never widely adopted because it took too much work. Pitino described his workouts this way:
The players are moving almost ninety-eight percent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make corrections they are seven second corrections, so our heart rate never rests. We are always working.
The implications for how I run my classroom seem obvious. It’s really such a simple observation that effort and motivation are the keystones of effective learning that I wonder why I don’t always see it? I can get so caught up in either the content or the particular output that I want them to produce that I am not always asking myself what I am doing to keep them motivated. Sometimes I am guilty of assuming that if I badger them enough they will somehow find it in themselves to be truly interested in what I want them to learn, when deep down I know that the only really useful thing I have to teach my students is a love of learning.
If we don’t treat motivation as intrinsic (or something that can be turned on and off as a result of badgering my a teacher), then we can start to explore the things that really motivate in a classroom. I can come up with three:
- Control. As I understand it, if our students don’t feel in control of their learning their hypothalamus has been triggered. They are in some sort of fight or flight mode. When this happens information gets backlogged in their “primitive brain” and never makes it to their cortex for processing. So whatever I teach them will never stick. Conversely if students feel that they are being listened to and have some control of the process then it stands to reason they will be willing to invest more in the process.
- Choice. This is linked to control as having choices helps students feel in control. Cathy Nunley does a brilliant job with this in her Layered Curriculum Model. I taught Science with this model for a few year and was amazed at how motivated my students were, I couldn’t stop them working!
- Value. In order for effort to be valued there needs to be a reward linked to the effort. Of course we have grades, but often grades are a mystery and if the direct path from effort to reward is not obvious then how can I expect grades to motivate? Using rubrics and being clear about grading schemes can obviously help here, but even then grades have very little intrinsic value. They are all about getting something; for example, if you get good grades you can go to university. Portfolios and exhibitions are a lot more work than just giving grades but it seems to me that the social aspect of the feedback received in these situations carries a lot more value than grades.
Finally, I wonder how all this will play out as more and more courses go online? In my experience online courses are wonderful for students who are already motivated and willing to put in the effort. But if I don’t physically have the student in my classroom, what can I do to motivate them to buy into the “full court press”?
Photo by Sebastia Giralt on Flickr