July 3, 2018 12:01 pm

Norman Eng

A while ago, one of my “quiet” students, Myra, came up to me after class. “I really like this class,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s interesting. I want to learn more.”

It got me thinking that night. What really is our ultimate goal as teachers? To get students to learn? To make class interesting? Because I get a lot of questions from professors about how to motivate. Apparently, bored students is a problem and engaging them is a big part of teaching. Experts seem to agree.(1)

I could give answers like, “Involve students more.” Or “Make your content relevant” or “Give them choices.” Good, practical advice, for sure. In fact, I definitely recommend these ideas in my training.

But there’s something that leaves me wanting more. Maybe it’s because we’re always trying to induce students to do something. Shouldn’t we get them to want to do something on their own?

In other words, it seems we focus too much on motivating, rather than inspiring.

The former is about dangling carrots: Do this, and you’ll get an extra five points! It’s external. So students will do that extra credit, or study for that test, but just enough to get the desired result. Once they pass, they won’t care. The math, the history, the chemistry—almost all forgotten.

But when students are inspired, they WANT to learn. It’s internal.

So I’m forming a better idea of my ultimate goal as teacher: To get students to want to learn more. On their own, by inspiring them. Isn’t that the essence of life-long learning? Isn’t this what we really want in the end—for school to propel students toward action?

What This Means For You

Students equate the teacher to the discipline:

“If the physics professor is cool, then physics is cool.” If the professor is dull, the student will think the same of the discipline. If the professor is so dull that the student never takes another physics course, well, that impression could hold for the rest of her life. (2)

Isn’t that so true? Some students were traumatized by math because they had teachers who made them feel stupid. Others couldn’t keep up. Whatever the reason was, ultimately these kids had bad experiences with math.

Maybe we should change our mindset about teaching. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t be calledteachers, or even professors. Neither term gets to the heart of what we do.

Maybe we should be coaches (or cognitive coaches, as Goucher College president Jose Bowen suggests (3)).

Coaches inspire, motivate, and guide. And when you’re inspired, you do things on your own. Lose weight. Get fit. Win the ball game. That’s not to say coaches don’t provide the tactics, the strategies, the X’s and O’s. Content is important too.

But inspiration—i.e., the emotion, the purpose—is what drives behavior. It’s what drove Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an unknown 28-year-old Bronx native, to run against one of the senior leaders of the House, Joseph Crowley, during the recent midterm primary elections in New York. And win.

No amount of “content” will ever drive such boldness. I want my students to do what Ms. Ocasio-Cortez did. Jump.

Myra, my quiet student, originally wanted to go into chemistry. But her professors didn’t feel she had “the right stuff.” So Myra switched to education and stumbled into my course. When she told me this class inspired her to learn more—heck, to become a teacher(!)—it was actually the highest compliment she could have given.

Forget covering the curriculum. Forget stuffing content. Focus instead of creating great learning experiences. That, I believe, is my real role as a teacher.

The Take-away

My goal: To inspire students so they’ll WANT to learn more

My role: To create awesome learning experiences

Everything else comes second.


Note: Myra is not my student’s real name

(1) e.g., see https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds and https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-13120-7

(2) https://www.chronicle.com/article/It-Matters-a-Lot-Who-Teaches/243125

(3) https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-06-28-stop-calling-college-teachers-professors-try-cognitive-coaches-says-goucher-president

  • Norman this article is really what teaching should be about. I often thought about the difference between motivation and inspiration and it’s great to see you touch on that. for me going in this fall, I’m all about inspiring and creating those meaningful experiences you talked about. would love to hear more about how to create them.

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