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Musing on motivation and NCEA

September 11th, 2012

Just recently I’ve been thinking about what motivates secondary students to want to learn, and specifically the complex but important relationship between motivation/engagement and NCEA. So often we hear that kids won’t learn anything (in their senior secondary years) unless there will be a reward of credits for the effort they make. Pretty much every secondary teacher would recognise the truth in that and it’s so easy to stop there. End of story! There’s no point in saying it shouldn’t happen because it obviously does. But what should we do about it?

This came up as an issue when we recently looked back across the years of our NCEA research with six future-focused themes as an analytical frame (these themes are in Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching). The results of the analysis are outlined in a new report called NCEA and Curriculum Innovation.

One of the messages that came out of the analysis was how important it is that students are active partners in their learning, and want to keep learning of their own volition. When you say this though, it’s easy to read it as the opposite of motivation via credits (i.e. a simple binary between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation). But as we found when we applied the results of our analysis to three case studies of NCEA-related innovations, it’s not that simple.

For some students early success from worthwhile learning – i.e. the students know that what they are doing is of value to them and others – can be a “circuit-breaker” if their past learning history leads them to expect to fail yet again. Here a boost of extrinsic motivation precedes but can lead to more intrinsically motivated learning efforts. But how do we get that crossover more often? I’ve described how it happened in one specific set of circumstances (in the first of the case studies) but there must be other ways and I’d love to hear about them.

One thing I do know is we shouldn’t wait until the NCEA years to try and boost intrinsic motivation. In the longitudinal Competent Learners study, there was one smallish group of students who were in the lowest cognitive and/or attitudinal groups in the early primary years who went on the get Level 3 NCEA. The difference for them, compared to other kids who stayed on a less successful learning pathway, was that they had learned to persevere while still in primary school and by age 14 were in the top quartile for a number of markers of intrinsic motivation. The short report that describes this analysis is here.

In the recent Curriculum Innovation case studies, we also found an interesting but complex pattern of motivation for a group of more academic students. Yes they wanted to get merit or excellence for their research efforts (the extrinsic reward) but for them a lot of the appeal of the learning related to the engaging nature of the task itself and the “something more” that was demanded of them by the merit and excellence criteria in the subject’s newly aligned achievement standards. Again my wondering is this: in how many subjects/standards is this crossover from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation actually happening? And how do you leverage the potential for crossover so that many more students come to care more about the learning than the credits? Maybe a different sort of “circuit breaker” is needed here?

Shifting schooling, Uncategorized

What should the “nature of science” look like in the school curriculum?

March 3rd, 2010

(I have more questions than answers.) 

I’ve just read an article sent to me by a UK colleague who shares my interest in making changes in the way we teach genetics at secondary school. The paper is about “Biological Citizenship”. It was written by Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas. They are sociologists whose interest in the “nature of science” links it to work done on how the public interacts with science, not to the school curriculum. But I think the things they write about raise huge questions for those of us who work in the school sector. You can access the whole article here.

In this paper they set out to describe and discuss what biological citizenship in the 21st century looks like and how it changes who we are – how we think about ourselves, how others might look at our potential “biovalue” and what we do when faced with a biological issue that impacts on our life (or others might expect us to do). Here are two excerpts from the many examples and ramifications Rose and Novas explore (I added the italics):

… while patients’ organisations and support groups have been around for many years, today we see one notable innovation: the formation of direct alliances with scientists. Patients organisations are increasingly not content with merely raising funds for biomedical research but are seeking an active role in shaping the direction of science in the hope that they can speed the process by which cures and treatments are developed. (p.24)

 …a key feature of the Internet is that it does not only give access to material disseminated by professionals, it also links an individual to self-narratives written by patients or carers. These accounts usually offer a different narrative of life with an illness, setting out practical ways of managing a body that is ill, the effect and harms of particular therapeutic regimes, ways of negotiating access to the health care system and so forth. That is to say, these narratives provide techniques for leading a life in the face of illness. They have a further distinctive feature which relates to truth itself. Strategies for making up biological citizens ‘from above’ tend to represent the science itself as unproblematic: they problematize the ways in which citizens misunderstand it. But these vectors ‘from below’ pluralize biological and biomedical truth, introduce doubt and controversy, and relocate science in the fields of experience, politics and capitalism. (p.14)

Reading this discussion raised huge questions for me about what we teach in school and why – questions about content itself, but most especially questions about what we mean by the “nature of science” and what difference we expect it to make to the ways we teach content. One question I have is “whose nature of science?” I’ve read a lot of research literature that explores NOS as an idea. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of it is a deficit literature. It talks about what teachers don’t know and won’t do. But this is mostly in relation to what we might call an “epistemological” view of NOS that focuses largely on questions of how experts come to make definitive knowledge claims – what Rose and Novas would call ‘from above’ versions of NOS. I think the ‘from below’ actions they describe have huge implications for how we think about what we mean by NOS for the school curriculum. My own position on this is not yet well resolved but I do see it as helpful that the NOS strand of the curriculum is linked closely to the key competencies by the way the sub-strands have been named and developed. I’m especially thinking about “participating and contributing” here. The participatory two-way nature of interactions citizens have with science really jump out of the above descriptions. (By two-way I mean that ordinary people who interact with a biomedical issue can influence the science that happens, not just be influenced by it.) Bullet point four of the science learning area statement implies a focus on current and future participation too (but not necessarily the more radical “two-way” dimension):

By studying science students will … use scientific knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about the communication, application, and implications of science as these relate to their own lives and cultures and to the sustainability of the environment. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p.28)

If we really mean to help students reach these sorts of outcomes (actually do we?) what might we need to do differently? How could you, while still at school, learn to “be” a person who is ready, willing and able (to borrow Margaret Carr’s framing of key competencies) to do the sort of things Rose and Novas describe? What science do you need to know? What sort of NOS might help and how? Who helps students bring the pieces together (social sciences not just science)? Assuming we can imagine some answers, how can we even make it possible for these sorts of changes to take place? What might happen if we don’t change? (Rose and Novas are not writing science fiction – these things they describe are happening already.) It would be good to share ideas because these won’t be easy questions to answer.

Shifting schooling , , , , , , ,

Keeping it complex

November 12th, 2009

I think I have been underestimating how much interest there is in complexity theory and what it might have to say to us in education. Not any more! During my first session of the conference “book club” strand I had planned to explore links between complexity thinking and Rachel and Jane’s book Disciplining and Drafting or 21st Century Learning? (I love this book – a gem on every page). A comment made as an aside by the person who sat down next to me (thanks who-ever you were – I didn’t see your name) decided me to change tack and foreground the complexity ideas rather than the book. Judging by the reaction I’m glad I did. How powerful it can be to take time to play in the world of ideas when we seem to be facing overwhelming practical challenges. So, in the spirit of wider sharing, I thought I’d start a conversation thread about complexity ideas and how they might help us find new ways to at least frame the challenges that face us as we live our “now” in the midst  the whirlwind of social change – and coming changes to our planet as well, but that’s another story!

Because there are so many ideas, I thought we might take a few at a time, so maybe this will become another multi-stranded conversation, much like the Shifting Thinking conference itself.

I’ve found that a good place to start is with the distinction between complex and complicated systems. This was important to the breakthrough thinking about complexity during the second half of last century. It was started by the physical scientists thinking about interactions between and within planetary systems and living organisms. More recently the ideas have been picked up in the social sciences (as in Capra’s book The Hidden Connections which Rachel has discussed in her blogs). I think idea of learning as a complex phenomenon and schools and education systems as complex systems has got important implications for education. Complicated systems are understood as being the sum of their many parts – to know the bits is potentially to know the whole. I see the industrial age model of schooling as a complicated system, in its design, enactment and accountability mechanisms. We can see this in the diagram of the traditional model of the senior secondary school on page 20 of Disciplining and Drafting – the assessment, curriculum, community-input and student-output bits all fit to make a tidy whole.  Complex systems, by contrast are more than the sum of their parts, and we can’t necessarily predict what will emerge as those parts interact. They are messy and have inbuilt uncertainties. Contrast the diagram on page 42 of Disciplining and Drafting – this is already the messy “now” for secondary teachers and the ground is still shifting. With our firm grounding in linear complicated systems thinking it’s no wonder the shifts can sometimes feel alarming and overwhelming.

One important idea from complexity theory is that complex systems adapt and learn as new connections are made and the consequences tested. The multiple emergent possibilities stand in contrast to the typical “if this, then that” logical linear prescriptive reasoning that underpins ideas in complicated systems. When links between things or events are seen as fixed and predictable, it’s so easy to see alternatives as mutually excluding – it will be either this, or that, but never both. This “binary” thinking is so deeply embedded in Western European culture that it’s really hard to escape. But complexity thinking challenges us to replace our either/or way of seeing our options with both/and thinking. Some of us have been trying to do this for a while now and it’s hard – the either/or default is almost a reflex!

A personal example might help illustrate both the point and the dilemma. When I first read Disciplining and Drafting, one of the pleasures for me was seeing some research I’d been a part of discussed by others whose purposes were wider than those of the original research. I am thinking in particular of a project that Karen Vaughan and I completed together called Learning Curves, which tracked the rolling implementation of NCEA in six medium-sized secondary schools, over its first three years. At the end of the first year we were cautiously optimistic that NCEA might achieve one of its stated goals – parity of esteem for different pathways through the senior secondary school, with credits awarded to all genuinely worthwhile learning achievements, regardless of their traditional “academic” status. By the end of the third year what we saw instead was a hardening of the academic/vocational divide, whose consequences are with us still. Through the complicated lens, learning can be one or the other – but never both. Yet many life situations, including but not limited to employment opportunities, require both. There are indications of this tension in the technology curriculum. Some opponents of the recent changes say the subject has become too “intellectualised”. Supporters of the changes say this reflects the nature of contemporary technological work. Thus through a traditional lens learning still has to be “either this or that” with a specific type of future pathway in mind. Through the complex lens our challenge is to find ways to make it “both this and that” and to value the many fruitful learning pathways that are likely to emerge.

There are so many other either/or questions and challenges that I think need to be reframed as both/and explorations but I’m curious about how others see all this. Can we have a conversation about other traditional binaries that we could reframe to help address the education challenges that confront us?  How many can we identify? Which ones should we tackle first and why? How might we go about reframing our choices through a complex lens? Please share your ideas and let’s think together about this.

Conference: November 2009 , , ,