How Can We Make Student Work Meaningful?

October 14, 2010
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How much of our students’ days are filled with abstract concepts?  How often do kids actually get to work with their hands?

This article in the New York Times caught my eye after a day of teaching intangible, purely conceptual material.  What did my students actually apply that day?  In Dan Pink’s words, what meaning did my students get?  What worthwhile cause did I convey?

How many times in a day are you asked by your students “Why do we have to do this?” or “Is this for a grade?”  Students increasingly need immediate gratification in order to be motivated.  They no longer learn for the sake of learning, if they ever did.  So how do we motivate the next generation?

In his book Drive, Dan Pink discusses purpose as a key component of “Motivation 2.0″.  If you want someone to be motivated, you need them to feel that a greater  purpose is being served than just the completion of a task.  So our students need to feel like they are actively creating meaningful knowledge that will make the world a better place.  Something beyond filling in the answers and getting a grade.

Or maybe the answer lies in the worth of physical work, as Matthew Crawford states in his article “The Case for Working With Your Hands“.  How often do you come home from school and feel the need to just do something?  Maybe you go out to your garden or work on a project car.  Or maybe you build something in the workshop.  I know for myself that sometimes talk just gets cheap.  I need to do something and see the physical results of my effort.

This idea is beautifully described in a poem by Marge Piercy entitled “To Be of Use”, which Crawford references in his article.  (Read the poem here)  Piercy longs to be with people who are working hard.  The people who are doing something.

And maybe that is the answer to motivating our students.  They need to fulfill an intrinsic need “To Be of Use”.

So tomorrow I will enter my classroom with these words from Marge Piercy on my mind:

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

The Case for Working With Your Hands – NYTimes.com.

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