At an International Reading Association conference, a teacher told me that her students had no motivation.

The following is my rather dense “lecture” that I shared with her. (See footnote regarding the term “dense.”)

I suggested that every student attending school is motivated; without motivation, one would not get out of bed. Whether the motivation is prompted by a situation, a stimulus, an impulse, or an urge, the person arising from bed is motivated.

If you grant me the assumption that simply by being in school there is some degree of motivation, the question then has to do with the type of motivation we are using. W. Edwards Deming—who showed the manufacturing world how to improve quality while simultaneously lowering costs through collaboration and empowerment—stated that problems are more with the system than with the individual. So it is with education. Allow me to explain.

There are three foundations for what we refer to as brain-compatible learning: (1) a safe and secure environment, (2) meaningful experiences, and (3) reinforcement.

In addition to school safety, this also pertains to the classroom. For example, when a teacher asks a question and then looks around the room, finally deciding to call. . . . “Stacy!” Stacy is stressed. The student is put on the spot.

(A better approach would be to pose the question, have all the students discuss possible answers with a partner—thereby obtaining 100% participation—and then ask for a volunteer.)

You will recall how another form of stress works when, after taking a test, five minutes later you say to yourself, “Oh! I knew that answer.” The fact is that taking the test was stressful, as was putting Stacy on the spot.

A safe and secure environment refers to psychological safety as well as physical safety.

The more multi-sensory experiences, the greater will be your memory. Think of one of one of your travels. You remember visions, some sounds, perhaps a few tastes from eating experiences, some tactile or kinesthetic experiences, and even perhaps some olfactory remembrances—especially in places where the smells were outstanding. Your travel was a direct experience.

Teaching and learning are done by one of three types of experiences: (a) direct, (b) secondary, and (3) symbolic.

Using music as an example, here is how the three levels can be explained:

(a) Direct –  Playing a musical instrument
(b) Secondary  – Listening to music
(c) Symbolic – Giving a sheet with musical notes to a student, teaching how to read the notes, and having the student visualize the written notes in order to simulate the music.

We too often rely on symbolic experiences, which oftentimes are beyond students’ cognitive development and/or personal experiences.

And then we wonder why students lose interest in learning!

Especially in low socioeconomic areas, the dearth of exposure to multi-sensory, enriched environments, which sets the groundwork for learning, puts these students at a significant disadvantage. (As an aside, specialists in testing acknowledge the importance of early exposures and their significant effects on test scores.)

The old maxim is true: Use it or lose it.
As experiences are repeated, synapses or neural connections for learning become more “efficient.”

Therefore, in order to have students motivated to learn, the teacher should use safe psychological practices (those that don’t arouse the amygdala), create meaningful learning experiences, employ direct or secondary (in contrast to symbolic) encounters, and reinforce (practice) the learning.

Without these, would we not expect so many of our students to be unmotivated?

Interestingly, the word “dense” usually has  a negative  connotation when it refers to a person’s ability to learn. However, as it pertains to the brain, watch the negative connotation of “dense” change to a positive one. The more neural connections of axons and dendrites, the more myelination and other growth that occur in the brain, the more dense the brain becomes. In this sense, the denser the brain, the more experiences and smarter the person!