Story Telling: Awakening the Motivation to Learn!

“Children nowadays are not as motivated as we were at school,” is the complaint of many parents and teachers. It’s fairly easy to realize and admit to this fact. However, have we ever asked ourselves why this is so?

The Brain Likes Stories

When I go back in memory lane and think about my own childhood, I remember that the things that motivated me to become achievement-oriented were stories of successful men and women. These stories were narrated to me by my grandparents, parents and teachers. Story-telling has been one of the most significant information dissemination approaches since time immemorial. Whether it is the dissemination of tradition, customs, or rituals, the oral culture has affected mankind to a great extent that the human brain is naturally wired to learning materials more easily when they are presented in narrative, story forms.

Given the fact that the brain is naturally inclined to retaining information that are narrated in a story form, parents and teachers might want to make use of stories (especially true stories) to revive the intrinsic motivation of students to learn, where they learn because they want to learn. In other words, stories are powerful tools to motivating students to become interested and passionate about learning and success in life.

Education: The Unpopular Topic

One of the reasons why children nowadays don’t care much about learning is because education is not given enough emphasis as it should be at home and school. Parents and teachers take it for granted that children know what education is and why they need it. But the fact of the matter remains that children have little if not absolutely no clue as to the true meaning of education. Again, this could be traced back to definite patterns of interactions between adults and children at home and school.

Think about it for a while. What are some of the topics that most parents talk about with their kids? Homework, exams, textbooks, lessons, school events and activities, play, games, TV, shopping, food, visiting friends and relatives, etc. (the list goes on). Parents spend relatively little or no time at all talking about education as an exclusive topic. They talk everything that surround education, and miss the actual target. In the end, children come to understand education as a system of things put together, in a systematic way, by some geniuses who claim themselves to know everything about something better than everyone else. This is definitely not going to motivate any child to become personally connected to the process and product of education. We need a paradigm shift, and we need it now.

Talking about Education

Parents and teachers need to take the time to talk about education. They need to take time to narrate to children stories of great men and women in the past and present that made it in life because of what education has done to and for them. Children need to become aware of the philosophical underpinnings of education and the reasons why it is such an intimate part of human lives. This could be done effectively by sharing stories of heroes who rose above situations and circumstances with the help of education. These stories would serve as positive visual images that children could hold on to in their minds. These stories would motivate children to see the value and necessity of education for their own lives by connecting themselves with their heroes/role-models.

Children nowadays are least motivated because they lack good role-models (many don’t have any, and the few that has one, gets them from the TV). They lack heroes whom they can identify themselves with. They lack role-models that they can emulate and become-like. I clearly remember what drove me toward wanting to pursue the highest possible degree in university. It was a 9th grade values education class where our teacher took us through a story of a blind man who completed a PhD in the UK before becoming Malaysia’s consulting economist. When I read the story and heard it narrated in the class, I become internally driven toward wanting to do the same. I decided that day someday I would go about pursuing the highest university degree and become an expert in a field of my liking. And I did just that. What began as a young person, continued until university, and the same passion to learn and become a better person still burns within my heart. I attribute it all to that one story, about a great hero! I looked up to this person and went forward to becoming-like him in terms of achieving life-goals and contributing as a good citizen of the world.

Start Small

Where do we get such success stories? Don’t look too far. Start with yourself. Tell children how you have come this far in life. Tell them how you have overcome difficulties and challenges and how education has helped you become a better person. Share with them specific experiences where education directly or indirectly came to your aid. Look around in your own family; your uncles, your aunts, your own parents, and grandparents. You would be surprised that you could come up with many success stories about heroes who walked the distance and paid the price to learn the beauty that education brings along in life from your own family members. Share these stories. Be proud when you talk about your own education and schooling to children. They will be infected by your excitement about education when they see the sparks in your eyes as you narrate the stories to them.

My dad is a 2nd grade dropout, who had to quit schooling because his father suddenly passed away and he had to shoulder the responsibility of caring for his younger siblings. But even as he narrates his short two-years of schooling experiences, I get excited. I know deep inside that my dad is passionate about education and would have done anything to remain in school. His life story has always strengthened my resolve to value education and gain the best of it.

Telling success stories to children about heroes who were sustained by education does not cost anything. However, its effect surpasses all the techniques and tools that we have ever developed and employed to motivate children to learn. Children love stories. Education would make more sense when parents and teachers share true stories that add life to it!

Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes – Differentiated Instruction

If one was to ask teachers around the world, “What is the most challenging task s/he faces as an educator?”- Two answers could be expected; the first would have to do with motivating and increasing the desire of students to learn. The second would have to do with teaching a mixed-ability class.

Changes in Class Structures

With the type of movement that we are experiencing in terms of worldwide restructuring and relocation of populations across the globe, one can imagine how teaching diverse groups of students pose difficulties to teachers who are not trained to handle such situations. To add to this factor, we have also realized and recognized the fluidity of intelligence, and that no one is dull or bright forever, just because a test says so. In other words, intellectual capacities can be shaped and increased with supportive and stimulating designs of learning environments. Hence, it is commonplace to have classes that are mixed-ability in nature, simply because education is not viewed as trite as it used to be anymore.

A World of Mixed-ability Humans

While mixed-ability classes are good representation of actual work environments and life settings in the real-world, tailoring lessons for them is a definite challenge! On one hand, we want students to have a taste of what it feels like to learn with individuals possessing a wide range of abilities, strengths, and learning preferences. Yet on the other hand, we have to accommodate the needs of every member of such a group in each and every lesson, without compromising the satisfaction and maximum learning of individual students.

The Evil of Similar-Ability Grouping

In the past, schools managed to deliberately produce poor students by similar-ability grouping, sometimes called streaming (in the British system). During my high school years, I realized that the best students of the school belonged to the science stream and the poor ones belonged, almost in an ostracized manner, to the arts stream. I also realized that students in the arts stream were assigned teachers who were least committed and possessed low level of teacher efficacy. These teachers did not believe that they could make a significant difference in the lives of students, especially the ones labeled as poor performers. The smart teachers were assigned to the smart students. The not-so-smart teachers were assigned to the poor students. What happened in terms of achievement is almost predictable. My school, like many other schools became subjected to the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy over and over again. Good students continued to do better and poor students continued to struggle and fail. This did not happen because students (on either side of the streams) lacked the ability or aptitude. It happened because of the law of nature that states, we get only what we expect of others (in Social Psychology, this is known as the Pygmalion Effect).

The Advantage of Mixed-Ability Grouping

In a mixed-ability class, although students’ ability and aptitude range from very low, low, average, high, to very high level, they are able to nurture each others’ self-esteem and pull each other up to a similar standard of performance. But some may say that this is not necessarily good for the high achiever because it will hold him/her back. This is a wrong notion. On the contrary, numerous research in peer-tutoring reveal that students learn the best and retain more knowledge (close to 98%) when they teach another peer (It Takes a Learner to Teach a Learner, 2007). It also allows every member of the mixed-ability group to realize that every individual, regardless of his/her level of ability and/or aptitude is gifted and talented in some special way. They learn early in life to harness and celebrate the colorful blend of human potential, without discriminating and superficially appraising each other.

Differentiated Instruction

How do teachers design lessons to meet all the varying needs of a mixed-ability group of students? The following are simple procedures and pedagogical approaches that would enable teachers to effectively teach in mixed-ability classes (Engaging Teaching Methods, 2007):

  1. Do away with lockstep teaching, where all of the students work on the same activity at the same time. This is practically achievable because many schools are now adopting the 25-students-per-class size limit. Where the difference in the abilities is less extreme, a lesson could be introduced to all in the same manner. However, the worksheets and additional exercises are sub-divided according to students’ ability levels (autonomous work). High performers obviously get to go in-depth and do additional exercises and reading, while the struggling ones are intensively supported by the teacher or their high-performing classmates. The use of computers and on-line materials are highly recommended to enable the teacher acquire and make use of a wide range of learning tools for this purpose.
  2. In groups where students are widely differing levels, teachers could completely use different lessons for different students. Each student works through a course at his/her own level while the teacher circulates, monitors, and gives help, explanation and practice as necessary. The only difficulty with this approach is the need for teachers to prepare multiple lessons for every period taught, which could be a tedious task.
  3. Use co-operative teaching methods that would enable students to take responsibility for different sections of a lesson. In cooperative learning, heterogeneous student groups are given the opportunity to work together to discuss, synthesize, and conceptualize knowledge in their own words. Some highly recommended co-operative teaching methods are: The Jig-saw, the Inside-outside Circle, Pair-of-pairs, Think-Pair-Share, Numbered Heads Together, and Team Games Tournament.
  4. The K-W-L (What do I already know? What I want to know? What have I learned?) teaching method is ideal to involve the entire class; identify previous knowledge, bring all students to a common platform of understanding on a given topic, and then continue learning more about the same. The strength of this method lies in its ability to benefit every student with varied learning needs at the same time. It also enables students to connect their existing schema (understanding of a concept) to the present and future learning.
  5. Group investigation or problem-based learning – this is another method of teaching that enables students with differing abilities and aptitude to work together toward accomplishing a complex learning task. Since the success of the individual members of a group is dependent on the success of the whole group, they usually help each other and learn together. While individual accountability is established by assigning individual-specific/specialized roles, the members are responsible for each others’ accomplishment. While many worry that this method might cause a good student a great amount of stress because he/she would end up doing all the work, an effective system and set of procedures could overcome this apprehensive outlook. If a teacher could identify ways to discourage lethargy and social loafing (free-riding), this approach allows students with differing abilities to achieve their greatest potential as young researchers and scholars!

New Forms of Assessment for New Forms of Teaching

The need for New Assessment Forms

Schools’ main role of providing students with the right type of knowledge and skills, through the use of right type of delivery strategies, which culminates in utilizing the right type of assessment tools to check for effectiveness of educational programs, are drastically changing. This is expected because any change in instructional objectives will lead to changes in every other aspects of teaching/learning. For example, since more and more teachers are encouraging thematic-project-based-learning (where students are given a topic on a specialized area and asked to research it, before organizing their findings and presenting their discoveries to the teachers and other students); their evaluation of that particular kind of learning cannot be assessed via traditional assessment forms.

Traditional assessment forms here refers to a host of paper-and-pencil type of tests items that includes but is not limited to multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and short answers. In other words, the more innovative a teacher gets in delivering lessons, the more he/she would want to think about introducing a variety of alternative assessment tools. Obviously, we cannot ask students to work in groups all through the year only to individually assess them using paper-and-pencil tests in the end. If this happens, then there is a serious inconsistency between teaching and assessment, which should be avoided at all cost. First of all, students wonder why they were encouraged to learn together but not tested together. Secondly, since innovative strategies often address higher level mental processes, traditional assessment tools are significantly limited in providing accurate and wide-ranging information about students’ true learning in the innovative contexts of teaching/learning.

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment (assessment situated in ‘real-life/authentic’ learning) is also called as alternative assessment. However, it is often misunderstood for performance-based assessment. While these terms are distinct and carry their unique meanings, the similarity in all of them lies in the fact that they move away from traditional assessment forms – hence, sometimes called as non-traditional assessment. The uniqueness of authentic assessment, as the name suggests, is the ability of the assessment tools to measure true learning (to a greater extent, compared to the traditional methods).

If we examine all the forms of traditional assessment that we have in schools, we would realize that they hardly address the higher level mental processes along with equally important variables that make learning possible – emotional, social, and physical aspects of students’ experiences. Multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blanks, matching, and short answer test items encourage rote learning and students who undergo such regiment do not move up the ladder of cognitive development to think for themselves and evaluate their own learning merely because they are not given a chance to do so. In addition, many students get high scores on these types of tests by stroke of luck – I clearly remember guessing answers for multiple choice questions and still not failing a subject. Does that reflect true learning on the part of a student? Definitely not!

Innovative teaching strategies such as cooperative learning, highly effective questioning, peer tutoring, engaging teaching methods, brain-based strategies, etc. have given rise to the need to use alternative assessment tools. However, there are certain points that we need to keep in mind when attempting to use alternative assessment. A failure to adhere to the principles of effective use of alternative assessment will lead to breakdown in the overall evaluation structures.

Points to Remember

Innovative teaching strategies focus on how students learn, think, synthesize concepts and construct their own knowledge. As such, any authentic assessment tool utilized to measure such complex learning is obviously more subjective. To reduce subjectivity, teachers could do the following:

  1. Decide on appropriate types of authentic assessment tools and define what each one means in the context of measuring students’ learning. The types of assessment tools chosen must correspond to the types of instructional objectives stated. They also need to reflect instructional strategies. Ideally, this is done before students are exposed to a learning theme, not after.
  2. Communicate these clearly to students and parents. This is clearly an added advantage of authentic assessment tools over traditional ones because in the latter, students and parents are always left uninformed about what, how, and why learning is assessed.
  3. Most authentic assessment tools are rubrics of some sort. When constructing a rubric for an assessment task, be sure to identify the performance indicators first, and then the performance levels expected on each of the performance indicator. Be sure to weight each performance indicator according to their importance in the overall assessment of a particular learning experience.
  4. Do not give in to the temptation of subjectively giving an overall score for a learning task, simply because “you are the teacher and you know the good students from the struggling ones.” Follow a predetermined, well constructed rubric and communicate it and its goal(s) to students and parents. Students SHOULD know what they are assessed on.

Rubric for Authentic Assesment

The Future of Assessment

When schools become places where community of learners group together to work on complex and interrelated learning tasks, old assessment practices would become inappropriate tools to gauge students’ learning. With learning perceived to be more dynamic, authentic assessment tools reflect the nature of innovative educational approaches and are geared toward meetings the needs of more meaningful learning experiences.