Last time, I discussed how critical thinking is not the “holy grail” transferrable skill that we tend to think it is. Rather, it is a function of knowledge, something most deeply practicable in domains we know enough about. This isn't a new idea in my writing, as I discuss it in the knowledge-building chapter of These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most.
This time, I'd like to pull on a thread that I hardly touched in the book but has become much clearer to me since — the role of knowledge-building in student motivation.
As I've said plenty, there are five key beliefs at the root of all student engagement and motivation:
- Credibility: My teacher is good at her job. She cares. She's competent. She's passionate.
- Value: This work matters. This is relevant to my life. I'll use this someday. This is interesting.
- Belonging: People like me do work like this. How I think of myself lines up with being in this class.
- Effort: I can get better at this if I try. Even failure can teach me something to make me better next time.
- Efficacy: I can succeed at this.
So let's say you're teaching an Algebra I class to ninth graders. Consider two students in the class:
- Student A knows her times tables, can perform long division, and understands how fractions, decimals, and percentages work.
- Student B does not know her times tables, is unclear on how long division works, and does not understand fractions, decimals, or percentages.
When faced with a day's lesson, who is going to find it easier to believe that they can succeed — all other things being equal? The Efficacy belief will be easier for Student A, simply because Student A is actually going to have a much easier time succeeding! The prior knowledge of the students is inextricable from the degree to which they will believe in their ability to succeed.
This prior knowledge, of course, is going to bleed positively into the other beliefs, too. For example, who will have the easier time dealing with that nagging question in the back of every ninth grader's head: “Do I belong here? Do I fit in?” The Belonging belief will be easiest for the child who, when the teacher does a problem on the board, easily follows along with the multiplication he's doing in his head as he teaches. This child, when seeing another student nod their head along with the teacher’s instruction, is going to have an easier time thinking, “Yeah, this is a class in which I fit.”
Conversely, Student B might have a wonderful relationship with the teacher and a great social connection with her peers, but when it’s time to get to the work of learning Algebra, she’s going to doubt whether or not she fits in with the rest of the class simply because she lacks the prior knowledge that the class requires.
Sometimes, the biggest motivational obstacle for the students in our classes is that they just don't know enough. This lack of knowledge creates doubt and fear.
And this all sounds like bad news, but actually it’s the opposite. When we can identify that a student’s lack of motivation is stemming from a lack of prior knowledge, we now know exactly what we need to do next. We don’t need to blame or label or pathologize the student. Instead, we can teach them.
How freeing is that?