"Education Is Not the Filling of a Pail, But the Lighting of a Fire"

Motivation, procrastination, and Yeats.

Posted May 10, 2008

A quick search of the Internet reveals that this quote is misattributed to William Butler Yeats (Poet, 1865-1939). Despite the error in the source, this often-used quote captures what lies at the heart of authentic engagement - fire. As an educator, I've learned a great deal about pedagogical pyromania. In fact, it's my passion.

As an educator who studies procrastination, I think a lot about student engagement. Formerly a boy scout and still active with a life outdoors (for example, with my other life as a musher, I run a team of sled dogs and camp in the winter with my team - a true Canadian, eh?), I've learned a lot about lighting fires. I've put these two parts of my life together, with an understanding of how to light the fire of student learning. It's really an appropriate metaphor and a good place to start my blog today.

Although this blog entry has a focus on student learning, you'll see that at its heart, the topic is still motivation and procrastination. Fully engaged people are not usually troubled by procrastination. So, what lights that fire for them?

The fire triangle
If you talk about lighting, or fighting, fires, sooner or later you'll talk about the "fire triangle" (firefighters will add the fire tetrahedron and the fire square as well, as our knowledge expands about types of fires). Focusing on the fire triangle, we can articulate the science and art of building a fire. The three elements of this triangle are fuel, heat and air. The science of building a fire is knowing that these work together (and quite a bit about fuel itself like tinder, kindling and fuel wood). The art of building a fire is being able to regulate these under the given circumstances to get a blaze going.

The "fire triangle" of motivation
So, what about this fire that Yeat's writes about? What is the art and science of lighting the fire for learning? Richard Ryan & Edward Deci have their own triangle that's appropriate with their Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Their theory is based on three fundamental human needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Their science (and there has been lots of it) has demonstrated how each need or component contributes to motivation. The art is in addressing each component as part of the curriculum and regulating them in the students' environment to maximize interest and approach behaviors.

Will & Skill
In my own presentations and workshops on this topic, I address SDT, but I simplify it even further in some ways (and complicate it in others - life is like that, isn't it?). My approach is to think about autonomy and relatedness together (with other things like "Need for achievement") as an overall "Will" component, and to think about competence as a "Skill" component (that includes things like knowing strategies appropriate for the task at hand). Will and skill - you need both to light a fire for learning.

This is not a new approach. I adapted and expanded this notion from work published by Wilbert McKeachie and his colleagues. A reference to McKeachie's now quite famous "Teaching Tips" is included below.

Unfortunately, many educators assume that one or the other of these components - will & skill - is simply the students' responsibility. For example, I often hear colleagues lament how students lack motivation. They lack the will for learning. These teachers expect that it is the students' responsibility to come into the classroom on fire for learning. Similarly, others remark that students don't know how to write the essays required in their course or how to read. They lack skills. Of course, students who don't think they can succeed at a task (lack skill) won't feel very motivated to try.

It's true that ultimately the student must be the fuel for the fire, but that doesn't mean that educators don't have a role in lighting this fire. At the very least, we have to spark the students' interest.

Interest - the emotion
Interest is an emotion. In fact, Carroll Izard has identified interest as one of our primary emotions along with fear, joy, anger, for example. Each of these emotions is important as each has motivational properties. You'll understand this best when you think of fear. Fear motivates what we commonly call "fight or flight." Interest is an emotion that motivates approach behaviors, curiosity, learning. Without an emotional response on the part of the student, without sparking the students' interest, it's doubtful there will be a fire for learning.

In my opinion, too many educators think of higher education as a "neck up" process. Learning is all about cognitive activity. It's not about emotions (something we think of as matters of the heart, and below the neck so to speak.) Although they don't necessarily think of "filling a pail" (ok, some certainly do), they act this way creating a situation where "telling is teaching." Where's the fire here without that emotion of interest to ignite it?

The fire for learning depends on educators' addressing both will and skill. We have to attend to things like helping students to: see the value of what they're learning, integrate their learning to their need for social interaction and their need for our mentoring, as well as help them develop the skills they need to succeed coupled with the courage and effort to try. This is the craft, the art, of teaching.

All fires are different
All fires are different. Some just seem to burst into flames and rage (wild fires in California get described this way with what I referred to earlier as the "fire square"). Other fires, while ultimately successful, have to be gently nurtured from remnants of glowing coals or from accessing the inner dry wood in what appears to be a soggy log. Lighting the fire of student engagement is no different, and each student requires a different approach (educators have all had their fair share of what seem like "soggy logs" but eventually burn brightly). The artful approach differs, while the science remains the same.

All of this is my focus for the week ahead. I'll be away from my desk working with faculty at other campuses on issues of student engagement and teaching with technology; some "good talk about good teaching", as I've learned to think of it. So, there will be delay in my next posting for "Don't Delay" (sorry, I had to write that, it was just too easy ☺ ) Until then, I hope to hear back from you with stories about your own engagement in learning. What lights your fire for learning?

Concluding thoughts - "kindling the gift of life"
I'll end with a quote from one of my favorite educators and writers, Parker Palmer. His book, "The Courage to Teach," is simply excellent. Here's what he has to say about fire and learning in some introductory remarks he wrote for a colleague's book.

"Tips, tricks and techniques are not at the heart of education - fire is. I mean finding light in the darkness, staying warm in the cold world, avoiding being burned if you can, and knowing what brings healing if you can cannot. That is the knowledge that our students really want, and that is the knowledge we owe them. Not merely the facts, not merely the theories, but a deep knowing of what it means to kindle the gift of life in ourselves, in others, and in the world" (Palmer, p. x; Foreword to O'Reilley, 1998).

In education, in life, let there be fire!

Have a great week.

(there are many of interest, below I've only included a few)

Bain, Ken. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

McKeachie, W. (2002). Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (13th edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

O'Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical Presence: Teaching as
contemplative practice
. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Palmer, P. (1999). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.