Ways to motivate a reluctant learner

In her book, The Gift of Failure, English teacher Jessica Lahey narrates an interesting incident. One of her students was an academically bright middle-school student named Marianna. Marianna’s mother confronted Lahey during a parent-teacher meeting. The mother was not concerned about her daughter’s grades. There was something else that was worrying her. Marianna, she said, just didn’t seem to love learning anymore. The spark or curiosity was gone. What had gone wrong? Jessica found that schools, parents and the society at large killed a child’s natural love for learning and made education all about the grades.

Many parents complain that their child is interested in studies. They insist that their child is aimless, unfocused and carefree. The problem arises when a child’s natural curiosity gets curbed. What can parents and teachers do to reignite the flame?

Educator Shilpa Naik had a student in Class 2 who was not interested in learning and would not even sit down to do an activity. She decided to find out more about the child and his interests and discovered that he was crazy about trains.

She then planned an entire five-month curriculum around trains! “I created a train with squares for writing numbers,” she says. “Addition was done in compartments of the train. English would be about writing fictional stories about trains using sight words. For social studies and science, we learned about when engines and railroads were invented. He outgrew it in a year but think of how much sitting tolerance and learning was achieved! The problem is that we are not teaching the way the child learns.”

Shilpa insists that a teacher or a parent should understand a child’s motivation. Sometimes, it takes a lot of talking and interaction to get inside a child’s head. She says, “I had a 7th grader with mild reading difficulties. We spent a lot of our remedial sessions just talking about random things, with me guiding the conversations towards what he thought or felt. We worked on worksheets that had life skills. Some days, he would just hang around watching the kids or talking to the smaller ones. After about three months, he began to show interest in learning.”

Acknowledge their feelings

Shahista Ismail, an educationist, thinks that the term ‘reluctant learner’ is a paradox. “Children are curious by nature,” she says. “Their need to explore and understand the world is the driving force behind learning. We also know through research that children learn best by doing. As educators and parents, we should acknowledge that a child may not be interested in doing an activity, break down barriers of communication and lay foundations of trust and compassion.”

When the children in her class were not motivated enough, Gayathri Ananth, a life skills trainer, decided to try something different. She took the children on a field trip to a nearby government school. The results were astonishing. “The children did an activity with the government school students,” says Gayathri. “They made many friends and formed a real connection. When they came back to their school, they started discussing how they can pool in their resources and buy desks for the government school. Their behavioural issues and lack of interest simply vanished.”

Give them ownership

Shahista intends to use an interesting technique in her Montessori. She plans to motivate children by getting them to exercise ‘real choice’. She says, “Children in the age group of six to nine years love to discuss and exchange ideas.”

The concept of focus groups allows children to decide on the topic they wish to learn and then discover knowledge by discussing and researching the subject in groups. This is normally done in the second half of the day, once academia is dealt with.

“Focus groups allow children to take interest in what they are learning and look forward to coming to school! Children work on topics like dinosaurs, space exploration, recycling – or whatever they might wish to learn. With a mixed age group, the older children tend to take charge and direct the younger ones. It is completely child-guided,” Shahista says.

Sowmya Vinay found that her 10-year-old daughter found school boring and wasn’t interested in studying. She decided to try something different. She talked to her daughter’s class teacher and requested that her daughter is given more responsibilities. “As soon as the teacher made my daughter the class leader, something just clicked,” she says. “She became more serious about her learning. She was in charge of teaching other students and learned better that way.”

Pluralise learning

Prarthana Gupta, an educationist, believes in coming up with different strategies to motivate students. At her school, children do a lot of their work in groups, and this form of collaborative learning is perfect for motivating every kind of learner.

“One of our students in grade 8 is very bright and is a critical thinker but loses interest quickly because he grasps concepts quickly,” she says. “He gets bored and side-tracked. We then gave him the responsibility of coming to class prepared with something that’s different about that topic. To make sure other children don’t feel left out, we extend this activity to everyone in the class but it was primarily meant for one student.”

Prarthana also insists that parents and teachers should work together. “We have twins in our school,” she says. “One child was academically adept and the other child, though intelligent, had her own challenges. We explained that each child is different, has her own way of learning and that there can be no comparison. As soon as we got the parents on board, our learning plan produced wonderful results.”

All children are curious by nature but when they are forced to sit and listen to teachers for hours on end, they don’t feel any connection to the learning process. It is important to make learning joyful, and to encourage students to take exciting intellectual risks without the fear of failure.

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Ways to motivate a reluctant learner

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