Motivation and teaching

From the New York Times article, “The Secret of Effective Motivation“:

THERE are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

That’s the first paragraph; it sets up much of what comes after. It’s a fairly short article, and not all about teaching, but the last portion struck me as relevant to teachers of all stripes and subjects:

There is a temptation among educators and instructors to use whatever motivational tools are available to recruit participants or improve performance. […]for students uninterested in learning, financial incentives for good attendance or pizza parties for high performance may prompt them to participate, but it may result in less well-educated students.

The same goes for motivating teachers themselves. We wring our hands when they “teach to the test” because we fear that it detracts from actual educating. It is possible that teachers do this because of an overreliance on accountability that transforms the instrumental consequences of good teaching (things like salary bonuses) into instrumental motives. Accountability is important, but structured crudely, it can create the very behavior (such as poor teaching) that it is designed to prevent.

Unfortunately, as teachers, we may not always have control over how students are brought into the classroom – whether it’s a college classroom or a yoga studio – neither should we stick our heads in the sand about some of the incentives that may have brought them there. The authors of the article – Amy Wrzesniewski, Yale School of Management and Barry Schwartz, Swarthmore College – conclude by cautioning:

Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.

This advice is relevant not only in academic situations but also any learning environment. If a student is physically present for instrumental reasons only – say, a partner has pressured said student into attending a yoga class; or a student needs a class for a gen ed credit – then he or she is at best, only semi-available to learn. If we have no say in how or why the student shows up, how do we reach the ones who do?

25 ways to sleep better

One of my favorite TEDtalks is by the poet Rives from 2007, titled “The 4 a.m. Mystery.” It’s comedic, but as with most good comedy, also quite true. I am sure exceptions exist – most probably for young partygoers and lovers – but in general, 4 a.m. is not a pretty hour to be awake…. It’s a downright ugly hour if you’ve been trying to sleep since midnight. In that case, 4 a.m. is the time you know you are going to have a bad day tomorrow. At 2 a.m. you were still optimistic; at 3 a.m. you began to go over your day to see what you’d done to deserve losing sleep; at 4 a.m. you give up and start trying to rearrange the day ahead to accommodate your misery.

I’ve had these nights (and those days ahead) and so I’m always looking for information on how to prevent them. Most recent to come across my screen is an article on MSN.com by Marnie Soman, seductively titled “25 ways to sleep better tonight.” Unfortunately, if you didn’t do some of these things today, you won’t sleep better tonight (unless, of course, you’re reading this at 4 a.m. and have all day to get some of these in). We all know much of this already, but it’s always good to be reminded. Some highlights:

1. Pump it up
Regular aerobic exercise — bicycling, walking at a moderate pace, swimming laps — for 30 to 40 minutes, four times a week, improves sleep quality. You can break it up into two 20-minute sessions if that fits better into your life.

Hmmmm…no mention of yoga here but a strong vinyasa class would surely fit this bill. The article warns, however, that said exercise should end at least 3 hours before bedtime.

3. Choose cherry
The fruit is rich in melatonin, which helps the body regulate its sleep/wake cycle. When study participants drank eight ounces of a tart cherry-juice beverage twice a day for two weeks, they reported significant improvements in insomnia. Find the juice at Whole Foods Market and natural foods stores.

Perhaps we can claim cherry-juice as a medical expense? Business-related expenditure maybe? Then there is the old standby at number 8:

Frazzled people sleep less and have worse sleep quality, and compromised slumber contributes to stress.

No kidding. My job market and tenure years immediately come to mind. Soman suggests a warm bath to raise the body temperature, which “may enable you to fall asleep faster and then shift you into deeper sleep.” Not sure how that squares with number 6, which advises you lower the temperature in your bedroom because “A cool bedroom lowers your core body temperature, which initiates sleepiness.” I guess you choose which works for you (I find a Bikram class totally knocks me out while a cold room means I have to make several trips to the bathroom).

One of the 2 items I can totally get behind comes very near the end:

23. S-t-r-e-t-c-h
In a study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, women who did upper- and lower-body stretches four times a week for about 15 to 30 minutes reduced their problems falling asleep by 30 percent.

Yup, make time to do some yoga. Even if it’s in bed. Even if you’ve already tried the other 25 strategies. Even if it’s already 4 a.m.