At all levels of education, it is sometimes difficult to motivate students to try new things. In my experience, this is often not a symptom of laziness. Sometimes it’s a feeling of being overwhelmed. While most educators would like to work in a situation where students act like a community of scholars, establishing this kind of motivated, self-direct climate can be difficult. Students don’t feel like they can make a new-knowledge contributions when there is so much out there in print that they don’t know yet. They’re overwhelmed.
Especially in our climate of high-stakes testing, few people teach how to discover knew knowledge. I was lucky enough to go to high school with someone who had two science coefficients named after him by the time we were sophomores, and I remember an interview he gave to our high school paper. Ciri Villarreal told us how he had decided to play with the numbers in the periodic table to find out if there were any patterns nobody had ever seen before. This interview left quite an impression, and it kept me motivated during my early graduate school experiences, when I was looking for patterns in the acoustics of /r/.
My later high school experiences included a encounters with a number of students who were interested in learning more than was just found in the textbook, too, and their natural curiosity also helped to mold my own approach to understanding the world. I try to share these stories with my students, and I look for other places where those who are new to the field have made substantial contributions. Here’s an example that has been making the news recently. Daniel Rasmussen’s undergraduate thesis has brought to light a slave revolt that history had all but forgotten:
I firmly believe that what separates the high achievers in our schools from those who lag behind is not always natural talent. A good memory helps, but sheer willpower will cary people a long way. First, though, we have to give students motivation (and in some cases, permission) to think of things on their own.