Motivation is muddier than intrinsic versus extrinsic
I am highly motivated to go spinning. I tend to enjoy it during; I’m always really proud of myself after; and I’m very driven by my end goal of getting fitter. I’m showing up of my own free will, in my evenings when I could be doing any manner of other things. I could walk out at any time with no sanction. I could turn down the resistance to low and give myself an easy ride. I don’t. I want to be there, I want to work hard.
With all that, you might think the behaviour of the instructor would make little difference to how hard I work. But I’ve been amazed at how little things the instructor does can change so much.
The fact is, no matter how much you want it, when it’s hard-going and you’re huffing and puffing, your genuine desire to succeed isn’t enough. Your willpower depletes. You forget why you’re there. So what is it that makes the difference in that moment between walking out and staying the course? What does my favourite instructor, Melvin, do that the others don’t quite manage, to make me turn up the resistance even when I’m really feeling that lactic acid?
Passion: The absolute number one factor that makes the difference between a great class and a mediocre one is the enthusiasm of the instructor. You can feel the passion for fitness and – this is crucial – for getting other people fitter oozing out of some instructors. It makes a world of difference.
What I’ve learnt: let everything I do and say scream how much I care about the kids I teach, how much I love and value maths, and how deeply I want them to succeed.
Care: When you feel like the instructor genuinely wants you to succeed, get fitter, and meet your goals, the experience is transformed. It means they can get away with pushing you harder. They can be harsh to the point of shouting at you, chasing you back into the room if you try to walk out. You want to come back next week to show them you’re a success.
What I’ve learnt: make it obvious that whenever I do something to make their life harder, it’s to help them.
Belief: The best instructors know you’re capable of more than you think. Melvin will come round and turn up your resistance when you think you can’t move your legs any more. You should hate this, but you don’t. You’re just so proud that Melvin thinks you’re capable of more.
What I’ve learnt: have belief in the kids over and above the belief they have in themselves.
Realism: High expectations need to be tempered with realism, though. One instructor would always just say “turn your resistance up to the highest” and will go full pelt for 10 minutes. It’s just unrealistic. He’s not checking that you do it. It just makes me not listen to what he says and set the resistance my way.
What I’ve learnt: get to know the kids well enough that you can tell when they’re pushing themselves; push each kid to their own limit; don’t make blanket unrealistic statements.
Following through: Lots of instructors will tell you to stand up and sprint. If half the room doesn’t, they don’t actually do anything about it. The message that comes across seems to be “I’m here, getting paid either way, they’re the customer, they know what’s best for them, I don’t really care”. The best ones actually follow through. They’ll approach those who aren’t doing it, and work with them till they do.
What I’ve learnt: if you ask for something, expect it and check they do it; for this reason, make sure your expectations are reasonable! Again, know each child and what they can do.
Hard to please: I love an instructor who is difficult to impress. It makes me work so much harder to get their approval. When I do get a fist bump or a high five from them, I am ecstatic. When they turn my resistance up I’m so proud that they think I’m capable of more.
What I’ve learnt: make praise genuine and authentic; use lots of methods other than praise to maintain a positive climate so that praise can be kept rare enough to be meaningful.
Circulation: I like an instructor who circulates the room. It feels more personal. Little things like a thumbs up. Chanting “one two forward back” at you until you get the rhythm right. It’s not that the instructor has any authority over me: if he notices me not trying my hardest, he can’t put me in detention. Yet the mere presence makes you push yourself that bit harder.
What I’ve learnt: circulate; encourage and challenge as I go; adjust tasks upwards and downwards as necessary.
Peer effects: The work ethic of those around you has a big impact on your own. If two girls are casually sat down, cycling, having a chat, it’s really hard to get in the zone and drive yourself hard. If one person walks out, it’s so much more tempting to follow them out the door. It’s why I really appreciate the instructors who don’t let that stuff happen.
What I’ve learnt: don’t tolerate one pupil ruining the learning environment for others; cultivate a studious classroom culture; engineer a state of flow.
If an exercise class with willing adults can be this complex, this must only be scraping the surface of motivation in the classroom. I’m convinced the principles of showing you care, knowing your kids, and pushing them further than they believed was possible are entirely transferable from a sweaty spinning studio to a studious maths classroom.