I did something last week which I never thought I would do. In fact, I vowed I would never do it.
I joined a gym.
A friend asked me if I would like to sign up with her, as she wanted to go to some fitness classes. I said yes and it turned out to be more cost-effective (isn’t it always the way?) to become a fully fledged member of the leisure centre, which included free swimming, unlimited use of the gym and the exercise classes.
One of the questions we were asked when we signed up was “How motivated are you?” My friend and I laughed sheepishly, undecided. In the end, the person giving us our induction gave us a 6 out of 10: after all, we had made it through the door.
It struck me though that I am the only one who is responsible for motivating myself to go the gym, or to go swimming, or to go to Aquafit, or to go to yoga, or aerobics. The money will leave my account every month, but it will be up to me to make the time and make the effort to go there. No one else can do it for me.
Motivation is a contentious word.
To motivate someone is to stimulate them towards action or movement. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition:
[to] provide (someone) with a reason for doing something, or to cause (someone) to have interest in or enthusiasm for something.
When I hear the word ‘Motivate’, my thoughts are first of all taken back to the brightly-coloured, spandex-wearing Mr Motivator, popular in the 90s for his fitness routines on GMTV:
As teachers we are told it is our responsibility – maybe even our duty – to motivate our pupils [spandex optional, but inadvisable]. It is our responsibility to give pupils a reason for doing something and to nurture an interest and an enthusiasm in our subject.
To some extent, I agree with this. I am sure I am not the only one who has had the opposite experience of being demotivated by an unenthused, even bored, teacher. At school, I was put off subjects for which the teacher displayed no obvious interest or enthusiasm, and I was motivated, even in subjects which I didn’t think I liked, by passionate and engaged teachers.
However, I wonder to what extent we, as teachers, should be held responsible for how motivated a student is about their own learning?
I know that sometimes when someone tries to tell me what to do, or attempts to ‘motivate’ me (especially if it is something I’m not particularly keen on doing in the first place), it just makes me dig my heels in even further. It has the opposite effect.
We can try to motivate someone for as long as we like, but motivation always remains outside of the person. It is something which occurs around them and is done to them. It is not necessarily internalised. It doesn’t come from them.
Far better, in my opinion, is to inspire someone. From the Latin inspirare, it originally meant to ‘breathe or blow into’ from in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe’. [The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, to ‘impart a truth or idea to someone’]. The Oxford Dictionary states,
[to] fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; to create (a feeling, especially a positive one) in a person; to animate someone with (a feeling).
A few weeks ago, my sister told me how she had been completing the NHS running programme (delivered through podcasts), in which one moves from being a relative couch-potato to running 5k in 30 minutes over 9 weeks. Listening to her describing how much she was enjoying the process and how she was feeling fitter and more energetic inspired me. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I felt that if she could manage it, I could too.
The next morning, I got up early, got my trainers on and went running.
She wasn’t trying to motivate me, but her passion and enthusiasm and enjoyment inspired me.
And perhaps it is the same for us in the classroom: if we want to encourage our students to find our subject interesting, if we want them to feel enthused about our lessons, perhaps we need to make sure we are interested and enthused about our subject and our lessons first.
You can’t give what you haven’t got.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of semantics. But perhaps it really matters.