Motivation is one of the key challenges in education. How do you entice a child or even yourself to really invest in the hard work of learning difficult material? Today I want to talk about the idea of foreshadowing, a technique commonly used in literature and film that builds anticipation by providing a hint at things to come.
We do not learn individual facts or techniques in isolation. There is an underlying story arc that provides a motivation. We’ve come from somewhere and we are headed somewhere. There has to be some reason for forward motion, whether it is a new useful skill or just building a foundation for future learning. The latter causes a real problem for many children as, when learning a particular subject is not immediately useful, it is difficult to see that story arc. In many curricula a student may follow a particular arc for years before seeing any payoff, if they ever do. Many graduate high school still unsure why they bothered to learn algebra, geometry, or English literature. This pointlessness leads to a serious lack of motivation.
One of the things that we’re trying to do in our education is to provide continuous foreshadowing that gives hints and peeks of things to come. This creates an anticipation and expectation that it is worthwhile to move forward along the arc of learning. If you talk to many successful people, there is often a common theme in their motivation and attitude toward education. Many times they can point to some particular event or teacher who inspired them to take education seriously.
I had several such influences growing up that I think largely contributed to building enough momentum to achieve success in college. The first was that my father was an engineer working at Texas Instruments and he brought home one of the earliest personal computers. Another major influence was an experience that I had at an educational summer camp. We had classes that gave us a taste of subjects far beyond what we were studying in school (one of these was a class in herpetology). These classes really gave me a sense that there was more to education than just pointless memorizing of facts, that there was a path and that if I followed it that I would arrive somewhere really cool.
There are many ways to provide this experience to your children. I’ve touched previously on the idea of having them interact with real, working scientists. We frequently expose our children to ideas that are too complex for them to really master, but in a way that shows the value of what they are currently studying. We read books that are way above their reading level (just finished The Lord of the Rings with our 8 and 6 year-old) and encourage them to tackle books that are a bit out of reach. We talk to them about serious dilemmas in the world and problems that are facing us as adults. We frequently take time out to try and place material they are currently studying into a broader tapestry.
One limitation to this approach is that many adults are unaware of why particular subjects are interesting, important, and even beautiful. I think that we have a responsibility to search out and study the subjects that our children enjoy, and search for new ways to present subjects that have not yet captured their interest. Spend some time today thinking about each of the subjects your children are studying and see if you can come up with a compelling story arc describing where that knowledge is leading. Even if you don’t arrive at something to motivate them, the exercise may be beneficial to you.