Monday, August 17, 2015


The intrinsic must come from the extrinsic. For many of us, the reason for learning first came from the extrinsic value of either, getting rewarded in kind for our grades; or the promise of a scholarship; or in my case, avoiding my mother’s cane.

So our students must be given a good reason to learn; hopefully, a reason more meaningful and with greater consequences than receiving the latest game console for passing their exams. This will not only help them develop their own intrinsic values to learning; they would have developed a love for the subject or skill.

We should also reward our students each and every time they step into our classrooms because they chose to give us their time; a scarce and non-renewable commodity, and for some, one with a very high opportunity cost. They do this because they believe that we can give them something meaningful in return. And the best reward would be a lesson that covered information that is relevant to them, something they can use immediately to enrich their daily lives.

This is even more imperative for involuntary learners. To win over ‘wayward’ students, we need to compete with their other pursuits, which give them greater satisfaction and hence greater meaning and motivation for engaging in them. So all the more we need to deliberately convey what we want them to know and crucially why it should matter to them.

Let me illustrate how this can be done with this example.

Suppose you are a math teacher teaching algebra. We begin by asking ourselves why students should spend time mucking about with letters that are supposed to represent numbers. Why not give them the numbers and be done with it? What is the true purpose of algebra in their lives?

Any mathematician will tell you that algebra is needed to solve for unknowns. So instead of telling them the answer to cos30=x, why not pose them a problem like this;
‘Suppose your neighborhood suffered a sea level rise of 1m. Would your home still be around?’
With the question, we get the students interested in where they live, what is around them, how far away they are from the sea. After figuring that out, we then get them to work out the angle of elevation from the sea to their homes. Taking the cosine value of the angle of elevation, and imputing the 1m sea level rise, they will then be able to work out just how much land will be lost by sea level rise and therefore, whether their homes will still be around when Johnny Polar Bear loses his last bastion.

Some call this authentic learning. I call this rewarding your students with something meaningful. Letting them walk out of time spent with you, with something from their prescribed learning which they can use to enrich their lives.

Next up: Translating it into a plan

Understanding Education

How to promote Effective Learning

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