The question is always there, we just choose to ignore it. And we pay the price. We ignore the question because we think it will go away. Every teacher sees the question in the eyes of his or her students, but since students rarely vocalize, the challenge is left unanswered and the lesson continues. The question, of course, is: “Why?”
“Students,” declares the teacher, “open your history (you can insert math, literature, or almost any subject here) books to page 127. We are going to start a new chapter on the Victorian Era.” Of course, the students quickly turn the pages of their books and dutifully begin studying the chapter. But many would love to retort: “Dear teacher, let’s not and just say we did!”
In an Education Week article, Sara Sparks reports the findings of a recent study on student engagement and writes:
What works to improve students’ behavior only sometimes engages them emotionally and cognitively, the researchers found. Students who reported that their teachers set clear expectations and responded to them consistently were more likely to participate in class and feel connected with school. But a teacher’s emotional support didn’t directly affect students’ cognitive engagement with their coursework; rather, students were more likely to voice interest and take greater ownership of their learning when they considered what they were studying to be personally interesting and relevant.
Similarly, giving students more choices and control over their schoolwork did not improve their motivation or make them feel more academically competent unless the choices were aligned with the students’ personal interests. “Opportunities for decision-making or freedom of action are less important than the extent to which the decision-making and action opportunities available reflect personal goals, interests, or values,” the authors write. For example, the authors recommend that teachers might “explicitly illustrate and explain the relevance of tasks to the personal goals and interests of students when providing them with choices.”
In short, the best learning happens when students appreciate the purpose of such learning. Motivational techniques will address behavioral engagement and possibly even improve emotional engagement, however the question, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” must be addressed if we are to truly engage the mind of the learner.
This may challenge teachers who struggle to clearly articulate the relevance of their subject. Let’s face it: How many teachers know why their subject carries significant real-world value? How many can explain why the knowledge they are imparting will make a student a better citizen or a more productive adult? (Is it possible that some might even be afraid to know, lest they realize the relevance is minimal at best?) How many teachers can, as the study suggests, “explicitly illustrate and explain the relevance of tasks to the personal goals and interests of their students”?
Put simply, student motivation and interest will largely be determined by a teacher’s ability to answer the question: “Why know?” Educators who are able to adequately address this most fundamental conundrum will reap the rich rewards with students who are engaged and ready and willing to apply the power of their amazing intellect to the subject at hand.