Martin Covington – Cambridge University Press
This book is truly an inspiration to us. Martin Covington, a professor of psychology at our own U.C. Berkeley, analyzes motivation in today’s schools and offers his recipe for enthusastic students. I’ll outline his basic themes here, but you should really read his book if you are at all interested in making schools engaging places to learn, instead of boring places to listen to lectures.
The Will To Learn begins discussing aspects of motive including emotion, thought, self worth, and fear of failure. For example, there is a noted shift in attitude around the end of elementary school where children no longer strive to please the teacher, but start to prefer “coolness” in the eyes of their peers. At this time, students start to equate success with innate ability rather than effort. That is you will be successful if you are “smart” rather than if you work hard. The smarter you are, the less you have to study, and conversely, the dumber you are the more you need to study. Thus a contradictory motive is established where if you study very hard and get an “A”, that’s good, but it shows you are not as smart as somebody who got the A without studying. Alternatively, if you don’t study, you might get a good grade showing you are smart, but at worst you have the excuse of, “oh, I didn’t study for that.” Thus the optimum strategy when innate ability is favored over effort, is to put the least amount of effort in. Sound familiar to any teenagers you know? Covington goes into many more aspects of motiviation which sets the stage for understanding motive and how competition work together.
Another key to motivation is interpreting failure. Students who succeed take a failure in stride, learning from their mistakes, correcting them, moving on to mastery. Students who consider a mistake failure in it’s own right cannot move past to success. Thus it is essential to teach students how to interpret failure as good.
Competition in America is regarded as beneficial in most endeavors including education. Mr. Covington argues that motivating via competition only works with certain types of students, an alienates more then it motivates. In a competitive class, the challenge for the top spot soon settles to just a few students, while the majority has no hope to achive the top scores. And it doesn’t make sense that student A should be considered successful only if he is better than student B. The goal of learning is to better onself not others. But when all students must learn a subject in the same time period, and then take a test, then only the fastest learners can hope to succeed. Covington proposes a grading scheme where effort and mastery is rewarded rather than speed and ability. If a student is graded on how many subjects are mastered then the student herself can choose to work more to get the grade she wants. In such a situation, students can be rewarded for helping each other instead of hindered.
After discussing aspects of motivation, Convington outlines what our modern society demands from educated youth. Basic math, reading and writing are of course necessary. But increasingly important are creativity and self expression, problem discovery as well as problem solving, planning strategy, and probably formost an enjoyment of learning.
Covington arrives at his recipe for educational change-games. Games and play are often considered the opposite of work yet there are many things to learn from games. One says “to play your cards right” which implies strategy and planning. Likewise, “she can play the piano,” means she is skilled using that instrument. Covington describes a breed of games which foster all the qualities discussed so far-motivation via competition and cooperation, rewards for trying and failing as well as succeeding, and infinite play. He gives half a dozen examples such as an expedition to colonize Mars, or to battle an infectious virus.
The Will To Learn is a compelling argument for games as teaching tools. It’s not as revolutionary as it sounds though. Many of the aspects of his games are really just group projects where the group decides what the problem is, how they want to approach it, divide responsibilites, etc. Perhaps the game aspect is most significant in how he arranges rewards and competition with deliberate goal of promoting both effort and results. His chain of reason is well developed and researched and goes through all the subtle interactions of motivation, reward and punishment, relationships between peers and the teacher, and each person’s intrinsic desire for learning. I highly recommend this book.
– Winston – November 2004