Assessment, Engagement, Leadership, Opinion

Motivation and Mastery – The Problem with Grand Goals

Teacher engagement, which is the key to student engagement, is fueled by autonomy, mastery and purpose according to Daniel Pink’s review of the research on motivation.

Fortunately, teaching offers abundant opportunity for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Clearly nurturing the development of young people is a significant purpose worthy of a teacher’s commitment and I believe most teachers feel that way about their work. Although some teachers in senior grades feel burdened by a bloated curriculum and boxed in by standardized testing, there is generally also a lot of autonomy. In fact, the “cellular” nature of teaching is so autonomous that it can tip over into an unhealthy isolationism, but at least there is lots of room for individuality. The fly in the ointment may be mastery—not because there is not a lot to master or because it cannot be mastered, but because there is so little consensus on what constitutes success. Is it high scores on tests within the disciplines, transferable thinking and communication skills, responsibility and citizenship, confidence and identity or all of theseand if these are all part of the grand goal then what takes priority?

Opinions vary on how best to gauge student, and thus teacher, success—which leads to disagreement. This frustrates the quest for mastery and thus undermines motivation. Of course, there are many other reasons that teachers may feel frustrated, overwhelmed or under appreciated, but the shimmering mirage of a noble but nebulous vision is a significantly unsettling factor for at least two reasons. First, it can never be fully achieved (which is an invitation to guilt), and, second, both priority and success are continuously contested (which is an invitation to insecurity and defensiveness).

In his classic 1975 book—Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study—Dan Lortie noted the challenge of finding valid, reliable and accepted indicators as a significant problem for the profession. He reported that a common response to this conundrum was for teachers to derive their pride and satisfaction primarily from strong personal relationships with their students. Many have subsequently decried this soft, indirect measure of success and urged teachers to use student achievement data as their touchstone instead. Few would disagree that hard data is important, but no hard measure(s) have yet been proposed that capture more than a thin slice of the goals of education. There is no comprehensive data set. Consequently, what is easy to measure is sometimes used. However, by mistaking precision for accuracy and availability for significance, one can settle on random bits of easily generated numerical data that diminish and distort the noble purposes of public education. All manner of misdirected energy and erroneous inference has ensued from this error.

Finding valid and reliable measures that adequately reflect the complexity of human development is a worthy challenge that we must continue to pursue, but there is no solution on the horizon. Moreover, the most enduring and enabling outcomes for students seem to be precisely those that are the hardest to define and assess.

So what might we do about this? Our aspirations for students are broad and inherently complex, but for developmental work we can choose to focus on a SMART subset (i.e., Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely). This makes it possible to collaborate with others, to have demonstrable success and thus to foster confidence and pride that motivate and energize. (One caveat must be noted however. The “Measurable” dimension of the familiar SMART acronym can narrow the range of objectives in ways that trivialize learning if it is taken to imply only test results and to exclude qualitative measures.)

Focusing on specific aspects of the work at various times enables demonstrable success in developmental initiatives, which helps to sustain confidence and commitment in striving for a larger goal that can be discouragingly ethereal and elusive in its fullness.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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