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C'est la Z

Motivating Students in CS Class

A teacher in one of my networks posted a question earlier today - "have you had any challenges or trouble with motivating kids in your classes?"

Not a new question and I'm sure for any teacher with any level of experience the answer is a resounding yes. I don't care who you are. Not all of your students are motivated all the time.

This can particularly be a problem when a teacher switches over from teaching an elective or selective to a required class but it might not be. I had to deal with this when I was able to get Stuy to require the intro course I designed. It was an adjustment but not really too big a deal. If anything, more students ended up getting turned on to CS than turned off and since even as an elective, there were always some unmotivated students. The adjustment was overcoming the reticence of students being "forced" to be there as opposed to students who might have taken an elective for the wrong reasons.

Anyway, back to the problem.

CS can be many things but in K12 it frequently involves programming and since that was what the initial question was referring to, we'll stick to that.

Some students will be motivated by programming in and of itself. They might see it as a creative art. That's great but they're the easy ones.

Beyond that, programming is usually used for one of two things. Solving problems and/or building things. You could also add for telling stories or communicating ideas but you might put those under building things.

Looking at programming through those lenses can also motivate more students.

From there, we get to the fine tuning.

What will scratch a student's itch. They might not care for coding but they might have some problem they want to solve of thing they want to build. When I was very young and just teaching myself to program I was of an age when a favored pastime was making fun of your friend's mother. So, what did my clique do? We wrote "The Mother Game" - a stupid little program to insult each others moms. True, we were already motivated since we were teaching ourselves but we went much farther doing that silly game than if we were solving some textbook problem.

Sometimes collaboration can help. Of friends and I who wroet "The Mother Game," two of us were techies but one wasn't but the third got caught up in the group activity.

Of course we still have to remember that one size will not fit all. Something that motivates student A might not motivate student B and what motivates the teacher will almost certainly not motivate everyone in class (I'm looking at you, gamification people). Sure, games are fun for some but not everyone. Same with sports, current events, fashion and any other topic. As a teacher you can mix it up and give individual choice when possible and all of that can help.

One thing to remember though is that even when we're having trouble motivating all of our students we still have it much easier in that regard than many other subject teachers. A language teacher is limited by their class level's vocabulary. In math, you can solve problems but only with the math they've learned so far which we know rarely translates to natural motivation. I love history but many students don't and history classes are frequently very strictly constrained so teachers might not have the freedom they want to motivate as many students as they could otherwise.

And of course, public school teachers with large classes will have a much harder time than private school teachers who only meet with a handful at a time.

Before closing, I should also mention that some teachers will have an easier time than others due to their own personalities. Some teachers are charismatic or otherwise succeed by "force of personality." It seems that students more want to please some teachers than others and that is also a form of motivation. I'm not saying it's a great long term one but I do want to acknowledge it.

So, to close I also want to remind teachers that no matter what you do you are not going to motivate all students and not all the time. You might read facebook posts by miracle teachers who only share successes or "thought leaders" who talk the talk but don't walk the walk but the truth is nobody bats 1000. In baseball, you can fail at the plate two third of the time and you're a hall of famer. Good teachers will do better than that but as I said, nobody bats 1000. Win as much as you can but don't beat yourself up because you can't reach everyone all the time. Strive to do better throughout your career and when the dust settles you'll see that your successes far outweigh the times when you weren't as happy with your results.

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