Thursday, December 7, 2017

Motivating Kids

I recently saw this tweet

The rather interesting gist of the research was how much better US students performed on PISA when given a monetary incentive.  That made me immediately think of my recent success and failures in getting everyone in the Math Club engaged.
If you haven't run an after school club, you might be excused thinking its nothing like a Math class. Of course, everyone is there voluntarily and excited to work on Math problems.  The truth is a bit more complicated.  For one, kids show up for a variety reasons including the dreaded "my parents made me do this."  Secondly, a student's temperament varies day to day.  The club meets after six long hours of school has already taken place. Some days even the best of kids are already worn out. Moreover,  a teacher in a classroom has a whole set of tools to leverage to make kids participate such as grades.  The club is a purely voluntary affair, buy in on everything from talking in front of the rest of the kids, to doing a problem of the week at home is a hard fought battle. Each day I need to find a way to create flow and draw kids into the topic I want us to explore.

There is no perfect answer to the problem and I continue to evolve in how I think about this issue. That by itself, is the first and foremost principle.   After each session I try to be critically honest with myself about how well it went and what I could do to improve.  In practice, I  almost always find I do better presenting a topic the second time.   Since I'm continually searching for new material this is something I have to keep in mind. For every really new activity, leverage whatever connection it has to previous ones to inform how it will be done and fall back to more tried and true formats/topics after experimenting.  I don't want to always be on the bleeding edge.

The culture of the club builds on itself.  First that means I always try to emphasize and reinforce when I see notable participation. I'm also ambitious in the sense I want the kids to engage with complex Math that requires a lot of focus.  In my  ideal vision we would just do a challenging problem set that I'd print out each week.  That would in reality be a recipe for disaster.  Instead I'm very mindful of the need to thread in puzzles/games/activities that are particularly playful. This is especially true when starting up with new kids I haven't worked with.

There are several general strategies I'm currently following that are working reasonably well

  • Games and Puzzles are always great as long as they are mathematically relevant.  Often they can be repeated multiple times and kids will develop more insightful strategies.
  • Leverage media. I'm super careful not to show a video most days. But sometimes after working really hard one week, a numberphile video is just the right change in tempo to keep everyone going. 
  • Have the kids use the whiteboard as much as possible. I've written about VNPS before:  This remains an excellent strategy.    
  • I utilize a very minimal  common  routine to get everyone into a Math frame of mind. Mostly this consists of an introduction and talk about what we're planning to do for the day and a group review of the problem of the week.
  • If things don't go as well as I want one week - move on and change things up next time. 
  • Use competition from time to time. I'm also super cagey about this but official contests bring out a lot of energy and focus in most kids. 
  • Shamelessly bribe them with treats. I'm still giving out candy for homework participation. I only give one problem a week and the goal is to have time to think about something interesting over more than a few minutes. When enough work is handed back as a group I bring in treats. The ends seem to justify the means.
  • Talk candidly about where I think things are with kids. If I see a problem or direction I want the kids to go, I'll usually mention it up front. For example, last week I knew we were going to walk through student solutions to the the MOEMS contest. So at the start I told everyone that was coming up and I wanted to focus on listening to each other.
Overall lest this paint a picture of perfection, I still work on motivation from week to week. I'm always looking for other people's ideas on what works and what I might adapt.   Engagement is very near the heart of mathematics teaching, its complex and its not easy.

Looking forward:
Now that I've experienced 4th-8th graders I can definitely see the growth in maturity as kids get older.  Right now I only have 3 eighth graders. If I can recruit more of them, I'm hoping to leverage their leadership potential more. 

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