Book Review: The Motivated Brain

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I’m a member of professional learning community called ASCD that sends me great resources every month or so.  Some of the books are extremely helpful and some of them likely might be better fits for other people or situations.  One of their recent resources was The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt.  Definitely an attention grabbing title!  I can’t imagine anyone that wouldn’t be interested in learning more about motivation…particularly in the areas of student engagement.  If that isn’t something that keeps you up at night, you likely ought not be an educator.  This book is not written from a Christian perspective, in fact it has a pretty strong evolutionary tilt…but there are some very valuable points to consider if you can take the time to sift through that.  This book has great research on neuroscience and how understanding the way the brain works should inform the way that you structure your classroom and the way that you plan to engage your students.  This book is a pretty quick read and one that I will definitely pass along to others.  I know that I particularly learned a good bit about the way that I learn and how that knowledge is helpful to me as I approach something new.

I took highlighted several things while reading and have posted those notes below…

  • Motivation, enthusiasm, perseverance, drive, grit, and tenacity are currently very hot topics in education.  Understanding how to get students to pay attention and engage in rigorous tasks is something ever teacher desires.  p. 1
  • Originally referred to as “brain-based” and “brain-compatible” teaching, this instructional pedagogy is now often labeled “brain-friendly”.  The philosophy and strategies encompass the following elements:
    the design of the learning environment
    the use and scheduling of time
    the integration of play and joyfulness
    opportunities for firsthand learning and outdoor experiences
    the importance of collaboration and social interactions
    relevant and meaningful connections to the content
    respectful understanding of students’ cultures, interests, and prior experiences
    the importance of student voice, choice, and self-determination p. 3
  • A growth mindset and the ability to persevere when faced with setbacks are skills that can be developed with practice and opportunities to make mistakes. p. 4
  • “Traditional schooling isn’t working for an awful lot of students.  We can respond to that fact either by trying to fix the system (so it meets kids’ needs better) or by trying to fix the kids (so they’re more compliant and successful at whatever they are told to do).”  Alfie Kohn p. 4
  • Our challenge as educators is this: how can we encourage students to allocate some of their energy into their learning and school experiences.  p. 5
  • If we don’t learn how to deal with frustration and obstacles, we are not likely to choose challenging or risky paths and will perhaps lead a life of mediocrity and predictability.  The trait of delaying gratification is necessary to persevere despite encountering obstacles.  p. 14
  • If learning is interesting, challenging, and meaningful, doing the work is its own reward.  p. 19
  • If students feel disconnected and frustrated that their needs are not met, they will likely give up.  A sense of not belonging is a major source of school failure (Glasser, 1998)  Students need to feel that they belong and have some choices and a certain degree of personal control.  p. 20
  • As educators, we need to be more overt and transparent as we connect student assignments to curriculum standards as well as real-world standards.  p. 25
  • Rather than working under the construct that our reward system is triggered when we complete a task or finally achieve our intentions, the theory is that the SEEKING system provides us with continued enthusiasm, interest, and motivation while we are in the midst of processing incoming information that is important to us.  We feel good while we are doing the task, not just upon its completion.  Dopamine provides us with a continued feeling of “wanting” as we seek, investigate, and research, and this is a desirable, even pleasurable feeling.  p. 38
  • Research shows that the dopamine system is the one that leads enthusiastic appetitive behavior, while the opioid system registers the satisfaction of gaining various specific rewards.  Thus, in education we need to encourage productive seeking as much as the satisfaction of goals achieved.  p. 41
  • When we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about making meaning, it is the SEEKING circuits that are activated.  If, in fact, the SEEKING system underlies all positive motivation, tapping this system would be a key to success in classrooms.  If educators can stimulate this system into action, they can trigger students’ instinctual urge to get out there, do something, find answers, and learn! p. 45
  • The brain is naturally curious, and offering puzzles or conflicting or discrepant events will cause the brain to begin SEEKING answers or solutions.  p. 54
  • “Elements of instruction…should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing education.  A freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind.  Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”  Plato 387 BC p. 55
  • Our innate need for belonging is a catalyst for cooperation and sets a good stage for interactive exploration.  p. 56
  • It is a feedback loop: cooperation fosters belongingness and belongingness leads to cooperation.  p. 56
  • Sometimes teachers involve students in developing classroom norms so that they have meaning and ownership for all students.  Ask students what norms are important to them in school and in the classroom.  Giving them a voice and then listening and acting on their needs gives them a sense of emotional, psychological, and cognitive safety.  This trusting environment lessens the chance for stress and anxiety and prevents cortisol (stress hormone) release.  Without the “reflex response” in a stressful environment, students are more motivated to keep working on tasks without fear of failure and within and atmosphere of peer support.  Their ability to focus and problem solve is greater as they are working in the prefrontal cortex and not in the fight, flight, or freeze mode.  p. 60
  • Pre-assessing students’ capabilities lets teachers know what students already know, what they are interested in, and what gaps there are to fill, so there is a foundation on which we can attach the new learning.  Sometimes in pre-assessing we realize that students have “burning questions” that set up the appetitive SEEKING system.  p. 67
  • It’s not about educators filling up “empty vessels”; it’s about students coming up with questions and ideas and learning alongside the teachers.  p. 71
  • Classrooms must be designed to facilitate multiple opportunities to do active processing.  Processing new learning in a variety of ways, multiple times over several days, and discussing it with others will build long-term memories and deepen learning.  If the initial experience is relevant, meaningful, fun, novel, and exciting, the learning will gladly SEEK to do it again and again.  p. 77
  • “Allowing one’s self to be puzzled helps generate anticipation of knowing a solution to what is causing the puzzlement/mental discontinuity.  The mental discontinuity can function to help create a broader continuity (a larger connected chuck of reality).  A student who explores what she finds remarkable, interesting, and important is more wonderfully mentally aroused and engaged.  Teacher-telling doesn’t help exploration.”  Pritscher, 2011, p. 12 p. 88
  • Students with a growth mindset will be more motivated to keep on working despite setbacks.  Teachers can teach students about how their brains work and the concept of neuroplasiiicity that assures them that brains continue to grow and change throughout life even into old age.  p. 92
  • Teachers must be willing and motivated to become learners, too.  We will no longer always be the “keepers of the knowledge.”  Investigating, analyzing, and problem solving are skills we will need to develop and practice right along with our students.  It’s been said that “thinking will not be driven by answers but by questions.”  Educators really can’t continue to replicate a mode of teaching that is obsolete in our current era (Pritscher, 2011).  p. 97
  • One of the most important tasks in education is to provide opportunities to teach students how to learn on their own throughout their lifetimes.  p. 99
  • Norman Webbs “Depth of Knowledge” taxonomy
  1. Recall and Reproduction
  2. Skills and Concepts
  3. Strategic Thinking
  4. Extended Thinking p. 105
  • “Our capacity to think is fueled by our storehouses of memory and knowledge acquired by living in complex physical and social worlds. But the ancient feeling states help forge our memories in the first place.” (Weintraub, 2012, p. 66) p. 105
  • “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day.  Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it would stop.  Tragically, it does stop.  By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet.  They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around.  They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”  (Bronson and Merryman, 2010) p. 107
  • “Traditional academic approaches—those that employ narrow tasks to emphasize rote memorization or the application of simple procedures—won’t develop learners who are critical thinkers or effective writers and speakers.  Rather, students need to take part in complex, meaningful projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.” (Barron and Darling-Hammong, 2008, p. 1) p. 113
  • “Challenges, especially real-world challenges, invite students to use their imagination to extend thinking about what is known in order to solve real problems.” (Drape, 2014, p. 60) p. 113
  • Students will create strong connections between concepts when they actively engage with information instead of being passive recipients of it (Gallagher, 1997; Resnick and Kloper, 1989). p. 117
  • “To build grit in students, put them in situations that require it.  Instead of asking them to show grit by finding ways to sit dutifully through years of meaningless assignments and boring instructional methods, give students challenging, long-term projects that call for grit.”  (Larmer, 2014) p. 119
  • Brains don’t like being bored.  p. 146

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