How Maths Mastery Fosters Intrinsic Motivation In Learners

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Picture a moment when you knew you were experiencing learning at its best. What made it such a meaningful experience? How did that experience impact your motivation for further learning?

Psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have wrestled with the question of how we learn since the 1960s and debate continues to this day.

Behaviourists vs Constructivists

Behaviourists uphold the belief that knowledge is a “passively absorbed repertoire of behaviours” (Wray, 2014) while Constructivists reject this, maintaining that knowledge is actively constructed by learners as a cognitive process.

In Behaviourist learning theory, motivation is often extrinsic depending on rewards and punishments while in Constructivist learning theory motivation is largely intrinsic, depending on the learner’s inner drive.

A third learning theory, known as Social Constructivism combines the two. Here, learners are partially motivated by rewards but because of the active, social nature of their learning, they also draw on their own inner curiosity and drive to learn.

Inspired by Vygotsky and Piaget, among other educational psychologists, maths mastery programmes like MNP draw largely on the Constructivist and Social Constructionist theories in ways that sustain and nurture intrinsic motivation. Peers collaborate, anchor activities are explored and journaling enables reflection — providing an environment where the active process of learning can take place and where intrinsic motivation is developed rather than stifled. This approach blends naturally with a focus on relational rather than instrumental teaching approaches in maths as proposed by mathematician and psychologist Richard Skemp.

Developing Deeper Learning

Vygotsky called the moment when information moves from outside the mind or personality to inside it ‘Internalisation’. Research (Niemic and Ryan, 2009) shows that intrinsic motivation is associated with psychological wellbeing and is supported through three main areas which facilitate Internalisation:

  • creating autonomy: reducing pressure and coercion, providing choice, giving pupils a voice, acknowledging pupils’ feelings about a topic and providing meaningful rationale for an activity all allow teachers to share authority, in effect distributing it more evenly and fuelling intrinsic motivation.
  • developing competence: activities which are optimally challenging, feedback which promotes feelings of efficacy and reaching mastery all enable pupils to feel satisfied with their learning. The structure and spiral curriculum within Maths — No Problem! significantly support this.
  • valuing relatedness: creating a sense of belonging, connection, genuine respect, care and warmth are all needed in order for pupils to feel relaxed in their learning and for their intrinsic motivation to be sustained.

How This Works In My Classroom

The highlight of a maths lesson for me is the moment when pupils have grappled with the anchor task and it’s time for them to feed back their ideas.

As teachers, it’s a time to give pupils the floor and get out of the way, creating a degree of autonomy. It’s these moments when pupils make their thinking visible. They teach each other in a way that one person at the front cannot. This is partly because pupils will be in a similar place for learning and partly because sharing in this way is social and a more natural form of learning.

I also learn things in this part of the lesson. Sometimes I’ll learn how certain pupils think or maybe new ways to view a problem which I would never have thought of myself. This co-construction of learning also happens during the part of the lesson where there is guided practice, where pairs work on questions together and where collaboration and talk is central.

Recalling the questions that we began with and taking some time to reflect further, consider, are your best learning experiences drawing on intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Which learning theory resonates for you and your practice? How might maths mastery teaching be a springboard for you to deepen or extend your pedagogy so that your pupils are increasingly motivated in their learning?

is a primary class teacher, MA student, and a blogger on Pedagogy.

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