Motivation is an eternal subject in education, one of the discussion staples at conferences, workshops and daily school life. How to motivate students to study, to learn a new subject, a new topic, a new skill? For those who later go in for science and research there are additional questions from the same topical group. How to motivate young people, how to help them see the wonderful world of research, teach them how to persevere and to feel that incredible high when success is achieved? I would try and shift the focus a little. Step one for a teacher and/or instructor or academic advisor is probably to be a motivated person. If you love what you do and can broadcast your interest to your students, they may follow your lead. This applies to any sphere of human activity. It is often mentioned that Max Linder, a famous comic of the silent film era, gave his disciple Charlie Chaplin a photo with the caption, “To my winner student from his conquered teacher”. Yes, it takes a great talent and a great mind to admit that the student may have outgrown and surpassed the teacher. There are other examples showing a good teacher admire and praise their good student. An instructor who is just that, an instructor, may see a child’s or young people’s potential and nurture it, support the budding talent and encourage them to continue their studies. It is not necessarily the major subject’s teacher who may act as a human catalyst, an inspirational adult. Children need our support and encouragement. It is a well-known fact in education and educational psychology that just one benevolent adult may play a significant role in any child’s future, while just one who constantly downgrades and humiliates a pupil may cause irreparable or long-lasting damage. If, say, Harry Potter and his friends had only the likes of Professor Snape at Hogwarts, would they have grown into powerful young wizards who managed to conquer the Evil personified by Voldemort? In the series which probably determined the literary tastes of the first decade of this century we see several examples of the good teachers. Albus Dumbledore, Minerva MacGonagall and Rubeus Hagrid, though vastly different, all have one thing in common: they love children – and they enjoy teaching.
Let us say we do manage to share our enthusiasm and help our students imbibe the new knowledge. By the time they become adolescents they may wish to know why they need this or that subject, and how they may use it in their adult life. Since I have been teaching English in all its aspects plus computers and the internet, it always seemed to me that my task was easy. A long time ago my father told me that when (not if) I mastered a foreign language and learned to type really fast on any keyboard I would have two very important skills which will give me an income, no matter which profession I chose. He was absolutely right. When I earned my first real money at the age of 16, while still at school, I felt that indeed I had a way of getting enough pay for all my expenses. Baby-sitting for instance seemed a natural thing to do in my teen years, but it did not require much. Translation and typing paid better. This was a good incentive to hone those skills. As Arthur Charles Clark told me much later, “Cash never hurts anybody”.
Young mobility is a feature of modern life. Graduates and post-graduates move around the globe, from country to country, from continent to continent. Their motivation may differ from ours. It is seldom that a young man or woman would tell you, “I wish to find a cancer cure” or “I wish to stop all wars”, though I have met those too. Usually by the time they finish a university or college they know better than to expect the world to change overnight. Quite often when it is a couple their motivation is the simplest and perhaps one of the most fundamental things in human history: they want to be together. One of them finds a position, the other goes with him or her to the new lands to try their luck. Friends embark on a project together and go to another country for their M.Sc., Ph.D. and subsequent work. Safety in numbers: it is easier to go somewhere with a friend or partner than alone. Love and friendship are very good motivations.
I meet my former students anywhere and everywhere, in Europe, the USA, the UK and New Zealand. Walking along University Boulevard in Berkeley I was stopped by a group of young men animatedly talking science who exclaimed, “We remember you, you are a university teacher from our home town!” Indeed. Yet another young woman is leaving her home town right after she gets her B.Sc. because her boyfriend is already working at a laboratory in a faraway country. She did not originally plan on doing that but she decided it is better to be with him than stay here and probably remain single. A young man left because, as he explained to me, when he came for an interview at a local institute he realized that there were absolutely no researchers his age there. Everybody he met was at least twenty years older than he. Yes, youth is attracted to youth, like finds like. This is natural. For some going to a different country is an adventure, they are motivated by the desire to see the world and try to do something good.
Once they start working and doing real research in their chosen field, they may get immersed in it and understand more as the time goes by. They may see the perspectives, the great opportunities both for discoveries and for professional growth which in turn may motivate them for more intensive research and for bolder approaches to the issues at hand. The quest for truth, the wish to discover that proverbial cure, to change the world and to provide a better life for mankind is as good as it gets. This is action at its best. Maybe we won’t see world peace, ever, but at least we try. It is certainly much better and more productive than killing innocent people by trucks and bombs. At any international laboratory or institution today you may encounter people of various nationalities who work together for the greater good. Scientists, researchers are very tolerant.
At a recent educational conference we watched a nice very short video on motivation. Here goes. Mother Mouse is walking along a road with her child when a large Cat suddenly jumps on the road in front of them and shouts “Meow!” Mother Mouse puffs up her chest and yells at the top of her voice, “Woof! Woof!” The Cat gets scared and runs away. Mother Mouse turns to her child and says, “Now you see why it is useful to study a foreign language!”