Fill a Bucket or Light a Fire? Motivating Students Takes Passion

August 21, 2012 / by / 0 Comment

By Tom Dyer
Special to GCU Today

GCU hosted a “Welcome Back” event for faculty earlier this summer as the fall 2012 semester approached. It’s always a great time to reconnect with colleagues and digest the unified goals we all have for the school year. This was my second opportunity to be a part of this event, but this year was different. GCU is setting records and becoming a bustling community full of life and spirit.

The theme for the year delivered by Associate Provost Dr. Kathy Player was based on a quote by W.B. Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I had heard the quote before. In fact, it’s mentioned in the first chapter of the textbook I am currently using in my ground education course. I did not think much of the quote that day with all that was happening around campus and the excitement of the coming semester.

As the first day of fall semester classes arrived and students entered the classroom, I wondered what they would be like. Excited to learn? Or sluggish and disinterested? Luckily, my students were eager and ready to learn. Others were shy and somewhat reserved as they introduced themselves to the class.

I went for a run the next day, which has been a great way for me to process thoughts while exercising. I began to think about that quote while running. What does it really mean? What does it mean for me, for my colleagues, and for my students? How could I share this with them in a way that is tangible and makes sense?

For me the quote means I can fill your pail with a bunch of facts and figures. I can tell you what to do and where to go, and maybe even a little about how to get there. You might retain some of it, but most of it you may lose as your pail becomes full and overwhelming and begins to spill out. But can I light a fire in you? How do I light a fire? I came to the conclusion that I must model it with passion. If we are passionate about what we do than students will also be passionate. Essentially, we need to walk the talk. We need to believe in our students. We need to be engaged with our students in the traditional and online classroom through discussion. We need to be relational.

Midway through the first week of classes I decided I would model this for my class. I had my two sons collect about 20 large rocks for me and put them in a pail. The next morning I lined the rocks on several desks in the front of the classroom next to the pail. The students peeked up front as they entered staring with confusion. I passed out notecards and we talked about learning. I asked my class one simple question: What are the “things” we want our students to learn when they leave our class? As they shared they were to write their response on the notecards and attach them to a rock. Some of the responses were what I expected. One student sighed and stated, “Standards, they need to know the standards so they can pass the test.” That notecard went on the biggest rock. Once we had all our rocks covered, I had a student come to the front to hold the pail. We began to fill her pail with the rocks symbolizing all the “stuff” we attempt to teach them. The pail began to get heavy and the handle began to bend as we added more rocks and we could see that this was becoming more difficult for the student to handle.

They got the point. Through this exercise my students could see that we need to create a passion for learning in students. Education is more than filling up a pail of information to get through a mid-term or final. Our students need to desire to be life-long learners. They need their fire to be lit. They need passion. I want them to continue to want to learn when they leave my classroom and develop skills that lead to success. I want them to be critical thinkers, taking ownership over their learning. They need to know that we care, that we believe in them.

I don’t think it’s just in the classroom. If we want to build the kind of community that Dean of Students Pastor Tim Griffin shared with us in our first chapel then we need to lead the way. Now, that does not mean we have to do everything and it also does not mean we do nothing. So, with that said I encourage you to model passion in your classroom.

Love what you do and who you do it for! Get involved! Serve the community! Go to an Antelopes sporting event! Support the arts! Light some fires!

Here’s to a great year!

Tom Dyer is a full-time online faculty member and adjunct at GCU’s College of Education.

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