One of the approaches to learning that I have discovered works for me is finding the meaning in what I’m learning. Why is what I’m learning important to my teaching, personal life, relationships, and the how it effects the world? I am a motivated learner because I am seeking meaning, and the pursuit of that meaning is well, meaningful. So, if learning motivates me, then why aren’t my adolescent learners always similarly motivated at this same level? It seems that encouraging motivation in students involves a two-pronged approach; understanding how the adolescent brain works followed by adapting teaching techniques to match their developmental level. Indeed, we know that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of about 20 to 25 (Wolfe, 2010) and while “adolescents’ brains are primed to learn…we often see boredom and apathy in their behavior. When we consider the hyperactivity of the amygdala and the elevated energy levels at this stage of brain development, this isn’t surprising” (pp. 90-91). The brain plays an important role in student’s ability to interact with and absorb information while making meaningful and lasting connections.
Part of making connections is creating relevance; when learners see relevance or meaning in their learning they are less apt to display attitudes of boredom and apathy. Eric Jensen (1998) asserts that, “Classroom information lacks the personal relevance necessary for any meaning” (p. 92) and we are warned not to “assume that because something is relevant to you, it’s relevant to your students. Help them discover relevance, but don’t impose your connections” (p. 93). So how do we help students create their own relevance? One of the ways that I help my learner with autism create relevance is through taking walks in the Natural Environment (NET) to make connections to what we’re learning during Intensive Teaching Trials (ITT). This has not been a specified instruction in my training as a behavioral therapist, no one said to take my kiddo for a walk outside, I just felt it was important for us to connect on a different level and for him to have an opportunity to interact with his environment; there are teachable moments all around us. One of the programs that I’m running is teaching motor imitation through sign language of “community helpers” (fireman, police officer, dentist, mail carrier). Once my learner has mastered the appropriate sign and vocalization, I then hold up a picture of the community helper and probe “who is this?” If he doesn’t know who it is (can’t sign and say), then I teach the labeling of the community helper; these two programs take many days of cold probing followed by teaching, then the acquired motor imitation is placed on retention, is re-probed seven days later, then moved into the labeling program. It is a long and tedious process. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of Autism is a difficulty with transferring skills to novel situations. One way that I have devised for continuously introducing my learner to novel situations (for labeling a particular community helper), like mail carrier or truck driver is to take a walk around his neighborhood. We’ve had the good fortune to happen upon a mail carrier that let my guy sit inside of and explore his mail truck; the same has happened with “truck driver” when a FedEx man was delivering packages at Christmas time. You had better bet that my kiddo really knows whom a mailman and truck driver are and can do the sign without hesitation! These are some examples of “community helpers” cards that I will be introducing shortly.
Right now, I am teaching in a novel context, with learners that have autism spectrum disorder. When I return to the regular educational classroom, I will be faced with creating relevancy in a situation where I can’t always take my class for a walk in the NET to help foster connections to class content. However, connections that create relevancy and foster motivation can be made within the classroom and greater school wide community. Diamond & Hopson (2008) elaborate on a number of school-based initiatives that engage students in meaningful and personally relevant ways but this is not something new to education; “…the student involvement and motivation at the core of the “brain-based” model is decades even centuries old” (p. 87). Wolfe chastises us to consider the following; “…we must remember: They [students] are not adults, and they need to be taught in a manner that both enables their brains to make sense of information and helps them recognize how this new information is relevant to their lives (p. 92) and offers a number of recommendations that are easy to use in the classroom:
- Demo understanding through role-play, peer teaching, posters, journaling
- Project-based activities
- Novelty in routines, physical arrangements
- Utilize current technology
Really, what it comes down to is this; if we want to engage our students, we must demonstrate that school is an engaging place to spend their time where they have an opportunity to pursue “activities that are fun, interesting, even exciting to a child and that provide challenge and stimulation while requiring active involvement” (Diamond & Hopson, 2008, p. 87). While this is no easy task for any teacher, I am motivated because the task at hand is relevant to my interests and connects to my previous experiences…and, it’s even fun.
Diamond, Marian C. & Hopson, Janet. 2008. Learning Not By Chance. In The Jossey-Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching With the Brain In Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Wolfe, Patricia. 2010. Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.