Way back in January, as I was setting some intentions for the upcoming year, I added yoga to my list. The truth is, I always add yoga to my list because I always mean to do more yoga. It seems like such a simple thing to add to my life. No equipment is needed, it can be done in my living room and on my own schedule, and even fifteen or twenty entirely-doable minutes a day would be beneficial. And yet. The months ticked away. January, February, most of March. I was not doing yoga. And then came a conference where pre-breakfast, outside-in-a-lovely-space yoga is offered each morning. This class would be happening each morning mere steps from my room. I signed up for the second morning of the conference. So far so good. Then the second morning of the conference dawned a bit chillier than I’d been hoping for, and I bagged it. What the heck? How can I be so sure that I want to do something and have such a hard time getting started? Motivation is a slippery thing. In a recent article in Usable Knowledge (“Unlocking the Science of Motivation”), Grace Tatter notes that two types of motivation need to work in balance: approach motivation (which steers us to a reward) and avoidance motivation (which steers us away from a negative effect). She writes, “avoidance can inhibit higher-level learning by forcing us to fixate on our immediate response to a task, rather than a long-term goal.” I realized I was having a couple of immediate responses to the yoga task. First, I enjoy quietly starting my day with slowly-sipped coffee and the New York Times Spelling Bee puzzle. This pre-breakfast class was threatening that well-established indulgence. Second, I’ve been putting off yoga so long that I was feeling too stiff for yoga. I need to do just a few minutes of stretching every day before I begin in earnest, I told myself. Basically, my logic was that I would be too stiff to do yoga until I had done some yoga so I better hold off on the yoga. I know. Both of my excuses fell right into the bucket called avoidance. The long-term health and wellness benefits of yoga are the reason it goes onto the list each year, short-term avoidance moves were keeping it from happening. So on the final day of the conference, I made myself go. And I discovered (yet again) that with yoga it doesn’t really matter what your starting point is. Good yoga teachers tell all students to start where they are and pay attention to how each position feels to them. They tell students to make adjustments until the pose is right for them (and guide them to those adjustments). The class I took was individualized, even though we were all attempting the same poses. Some were easy for me (despite my lack of pre-yoga preparation) and some were challenging. I could tell who in the class was more experienced and who was more novice, but it was possible to observe those things without judgment because each of us had an entry point. And because we attempted each position multiple times, I was able to see small improvements right away. I left the class feeling energized and competent. When thinking about the classroom, there’s so much to be learned from yoga. How, for instance, can we make sure our classes are working well for each student? How can we all work on the same pose while recognizing the need for different entry points? And how can we design experiences that allow students to observe (and be buoyed by) their strengths so that they can also observe their weaknesses without all that judgment? I have a student who struggled mightily with fractions but who can visualize and rotate three dimensional shapes in her head with ease. How can I help her feel energized and competent when she leaves my classroom even on days when math doesn’t come easily? “Competence [says Maurice J. Elias, in his Edutopia article, “Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation in Students”] is not an absolute term. When we improve, we’re becoming more competent. That’s what needs to be recognized in order to encourage more improvement. One can only attain a lofty status by moving up through various levels. It’s the forward movement that we must nurture.”
When people (that’s all of us) have the experience of improving at whatever it is they are doing, that feeling of increasing competence is far more effective than external rewards in keeping their motivation going. The improvement can be small and incremental, but it needs to be perceptible. That’s exactly how that yoga class worked for me. Since coming home, I’ve done yoga more frequently. So many things can feed our students’ avoidance motivation: fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, not knowing where to start or how to approach the work, any number of other distractions; the list of possibilities is long. But if we can provide opportunities for them to perceive themselves improving and becoming more competent, we can help feed that approach motivation. It’s the forward movement that we must nurture.