September 12, 2005

Shaping Attitudes

After attending church this past Sunday, I began to think about how teachers shape students' attitudes. Religous education is, in large part, about shaping attitudes, values, and beliefs. As an educator, there is no doubt that I hope to shape students' attitudes, values, and beliefs as they related to pharmacy practice. This process is called "professionalization." Perhaps the most difficult thing to teach is attitude. Yet, if teachers are in the business of empowering people to become COMPETENT citizens or professionals, it clearly requires teaching people more than a bunch of facts and arming them with the tools to DO certain tasks ... it requires shaping an appropriate attitude (or willingness) to actually use the knowledge and skill. Indeed, it could be argued, that the teacher's single most important task is shaping students' attitudes because the desire to gain the necessary knowledge and skills will naturally follow. In the absense of an appropriate attitude, merely possessing the knowledge and skills to DO something will not result in someone actually DOING something when the appropriate times comes in the "real world."

But how do teachers shape attitudes? Most of us have experienced circumstances when a teacher shaped our attitudes ... but not always in a positive way. Indeed, we may have been turned off from learning how to do something because we had a negative experience or because a teacher (or anyone for that matter) we admired expressed negative opinions about something. Or discourage us in subtle or even overt ways by communicating to us that we weren't capable of doing it. I think we all know ways to turn people off. But how can we "turn them on" ... in other words, create positive feelings and a willingness to engage - spontaneously, without promising rewards or threatening punishment - in a particular endeavor. Or an eagerness to learn more about a particular subject. Or develop a yearning to do something. How do we, as teachers, create desire so compelling that students no longer need (or want) prompting to DO the desired activity. While some (perhaps most) students have an intrinsic desire to learn how to DO lots of things in this world (including the things we are passionate about and think are important), teachers can cultivate or destroy that desire.

Here's what the experts say about cultivating and shaping POSITIVE attitudes:

1) Teachers who have a positive attitude (better yet, enthusiasm) toward the subject matter or tasks they are teaching are more likely to engender a positive attitude (if not enthusiasm) toward the subject matter or tasks.

2) Teachers who possess a great deal of expertise in the subject matter or tasks they are asking students to learn about are more likely to be perceived as credible ... and excellent role models.

3) Teachers who challenge students in authentic (meaningful) learning experiences (from the learner's perspective) can shape a positive attitude toward the subject matter or task. Material that seems irrelevant (to the learner) is unlikely to inspire anyone to want to learn it!

4) Teachers who believe their students can (and will) excel creative a positive learning environment. This does not mean that teachers must avoid giving students critical feedback about ways they can improve performance. Insincere praise won't help people excel and it quickly leads to mistrust and feelings of betrayal. Setting high standards - standards that are clearly articulated - and providing regular and meaningful feedback to students about their performance can motivate students to excel. But teachers must communicate a belief that students can improve their performance and are capable of meeting high standards. The best teachers notice and readily acknowledge improvements in performance when they occur.

5) Teachers who are culturally sensitive or exhibit cultural responsiveness can also enhance motivation to learn. This is not limited to the cultural difference among ethnic groups but also a sensitivity and responsiveness to the cultural differences between men and women, younger and older adults, socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged learners, and a host of other factors that shape a group of learners understanding of the world, norms of behavior, and values. Indeed, if the teacher is attempting to alter students' perceptions, behavior, and values, the teacher must have an awareness of (and acknowledge) students' pre-existing cultural perspectives. Failure to do so will lead to resistance or out right rejection of the perspectives and values the teacher is hoping students will consider.

For more information about motivation and shaping attitudes, check out this book: Wlodkowski, R. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults (Revised Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. Click here to Read the book review.