Going for Gold

It continues to surprise me that a theme for a post will persist in presenting itself to me until I finally say, “OK! I’ll write about it!”  During the last few days, several situations have nudged me to reflect on the importance of the achievable challenge as a source of pleasure. Like billions of other people, I have been hooked on the London Olympics.  Every four years I watch amazing athletes do amazing things and find myself musing, “Yeah…I wanna try that!”  Of course, I couldn’t do any of it. But somehow seeing those beautiful young people swim, flip, cycle, row, run, and all the rest makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I could do something like that. Seeing the cyclists pedaling uphill at 27 mph inspires me, although I think I’m flying when I hit 13 mph.  I find myself cheering for sports that I never even consider: badminton, water polo, fencing, ping pong!  Bring it on!  The commercials alone are enough to fire us up:

Today in my Zumba exercise class, which is a much more realistic endeavor for my nonathletic self, a friend was struggling with a challenging dance step.  “That is too hard!” she laughed.  I reminded her that one of my sons’ best teachers forbade her students to use that phrase, requiring them to say “This is challenging” instead, a practice that I have endorsed in my own classes.  I also don’t allow “I can’t do this!”  My students have learned to amend that to “I can’t do this yet.”

That “yet” makes all the difference.  “Yet” insists that the challenge is achievable. “Yet” promises that success is right over the next hill.  “Yet” tells my students that I know that they can do what I have asked of them.  Sometimes, just for fun, I will spit out a tongue twister that includes terms they don’t know yet, like “ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelium” or “acute poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis.”   Predictably, I hear “How can you say that?”  I assure them that they, too, will be spewing previously unpronounceable words in just a few days, and they will know what those words mean.  Sure enough, I soon have some very proud neo-anatomists whose friends and family are both impressed by and weary of their loved ones’ new vocabularies.

David McClelland’s theory of needs posits that those with a high need for achievement respond best to moderate challenges that have a reasonable probability of success.  If the risk is too low, the achievement seems to be of little value.  If the challenge is too risky, success seems to be more a matter of chance than a reward for effort.  If I want to motivate my students, I need to be aware of the strategies that motivate achievers, including praise and reward (amazing what students will do for a miniature candy bar) and deliberate invitation to recognize the pleasure of success.  We sometimes have “pat yourself on the back” moments to celebrate mastering challenging concepts, and I sometimes remind students midway through class that they know a lot more than when they walked in this morning.

What techniques or strategies motivate your students?  How do you recognize and celebrate success beyond simply assigning grades?



One comment on “Going for Gold

  1. Brian says:

    As I discovered more how my discipline, writing, is a process, I found myself saying “yet” a lot more because it does not put writing skills in an out-of-reach place. Students often say, “I don’t like to write” or “I’m not a good writer,” and they have already locked themselves into lack of interest and lack of ability.
    It is great to see students take a second look at a subject and give it another chance. I hated my tenth grade English class so much that I told a buddy in the lunch line, “I wish I never had to take another English course in my life.” But lo, my next two years featured two wonderful ladies who totally recast my ideas about English, and largely because of them, I wanted to major in English.

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