Choices in the classroom motivate learning

Giving children some freedom in the learning process will inspire them to become self-starters, educators tell Mabel Sieh

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:41am

Earlier this year, Primary Six pupils of Sun Fong Chung Primary School in Tai Po had fun organising their own Lunar New Year market. They made items such as beaded telephone straps for sale, and all transactions were conducted either in Putonghua or English - the main mediums of instruction at the school. All proceeds went towards an education fund.

"The students loved it," says Poon Tze-kin, chair of the school's English panel. "They got to decide what to make and sell, set prices and devise tactics to attract customers."

Poon and his colleagues adopt various ways to encourage students to learn in real life, visiting supermarkets for a module on food and nutrition, for example. "There's a bigger classroom outside the physical one, and children enjoy such experiences," he says.

Giving youngsters the freedom to decide how they learn is also a great motivator, says Deborah Stipek, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. "By giving students a choice, whether it is a big or small one, you give them a sense of control. You are teaching them to be responsible for their own learning and planning."

The author of Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice, among other books, Stipek was in Hong Kong to address a learning campaign organised by the charity Bring Me a Book Hong Kong. "You need to do it in small increments and see what choices you can allow for students. So you have to know your students," she says.

"Whenever you give an instruction, ask yourself: do I have to limit them so much? Can I give them some kind of choice? If you can give them a choice, their level of enthusiasm will grow tremendously."

It is challenging for teachers to offer choices when dealing with large classes and limited time, but Poon's experience shows small changes can make a difference.

Successful people are flexible and can work on different ideas
Deborah Stipek

"I can't design different kinds of projects for different students during a lesson, but I can give them choices within the target language of the lesson," he says. "Giving students freedom makes them more interested and committed to learning."

But once students enter secondary schools, exam pressures and busier schedules mean there is often less flexibility. Do teachers still have the luxury to offer choices?

For Paula Mak, a Chinese-American teaching in an elite Kowloon school, the answer is an emphatic "yes".

"I let students choose what topic to start first. I tell them all the modules we need to cover in the syllabus and they can discuss and vote [on the order] I teach them. I am not really changing the syllabus so it's fine," she says.

This liberal style gives students a sense ownership in their learning process, Mak says.

"I think by offering them choices, you validate young learners who often view themselves with very little power. Giving them decision-making power will empower them to be who they are, which is motivation."

Mak also tries to individualise her teaching as far as possible so no student is left behind. She varies her teaching strategies with videos, songs, personal stories. Weaker students are grouped with stronger ones, and she repeats ideas so weaker ones can hear it more than once.

To encourage a spirit of inquiry, Mak also gets students to write down questions on topic they have covered and drop them into a hat. Because she answers the questions as she picks them out of the hat, weaker students will not feel singled out. The customisation methods Mak uses are useful in nurturing motivation to learn, Stipek says.

"Often we see students losing interest in tasks that are too easy or too difficult. To motivate them, you need to individualise your teaching. It can be done through different ways such as providing individualised tasks and expectations, providing multiple entry points, and flexible groupings. This is the most difficult task for being an effective teacher," she says.

Stipek urges teachers to re-examine their methods and adopt effective ways to motivate learning, as Poon and Mak have done.

"Research [in the US] has told us that children's' motivation drops from third to eighth grade. By eighth grade, they have lost the interest to learn. Today, when you ask children what they think of school, they say it's boring. We need to ask ourselves what is going wrong."

One thing that has gone wrong in the US, she says, is a shift in the goal of learning from being smart to looking smart.

"If you look at small children, they're born with an interest to learn; they learn by asking questions and doing things. They want to know how to tie their shoes and write their names. They are not trying to get an 'A'. They don't care if they're better than the child sitting next to them. They want to master these skills because it makes them feel good."

Unfortunately, that attitude changes as they advance in school. "Older kids don't learn for the sake of learning. They learn to get good grades and recognition. Their motivations - pleasing their parents, going into college - are extrinsic.

"They learn to follow the rules set by teachers because that is how they can get good grades. They learn to get the right answer and they focus on clarity. They learn only what is required in the exams."

But success in adult life does not always follow success in exams. "If we look at studies on successful people in the 21st century, they aren't the ones who know the right answers. They're the people who are flexible and can work on different ideas," Stipek says.

"They're comfortable with ambiguity and risk-taking; they are good team players. We should be educating our kids to have these skills," she adds.

There is a high level of stress for students today, and learning is no longer an enjoyable process. "In the US, the level of anxiety and stress in students is an epidemic. The high pressure makes some students check out [of schools], while those who stay are often stressed out.

"A high level of stress fires up our immune system and damages our health; it can also lead to depression. In the US, we've also seen students taking drugs due to too much pressure from school and parents," Stipek says.

Mak sees similar situations in Hong Kong. "Under the educational system here, students perceive exams and skills as the most important things in their learning, though in reality, they know those things don't help them achieve their dreams, or cultivate their qualities as a person.

"They have no time, energy or desire to learn. The educational system can kill the love of learning for 99 per cent of students. Only one per cent can rise above the competitive nature of society," Mak says.

This learning culture needs to change and parents can help by not adding to the pressure, Stipek says. "Don't focus every conversation on performance. Instead of asking your child they did in school, ask them what they learnt. What you say to them becomes part of who they are and how they are valued."

Conscious of the "tiger mum" syndrome, Stipek says parents should learn to let go. "Passion and motivation go hand in hand. Let your child find his or her interest. If everything is prescribed by you, there is no chance for them to learn."

Mutual support is needed if we are to change what Stipek describes as a "screwed-up" learning culture.

"Teachers and parents need to work together to create a school culture in which students are oriented towards learning and not performance, so that students will become creative people who will seek knowledge in life," she says.