Here’s my working theory on how to optimize learning as an educator.
It starts with autonomy. If you start forcing someone to do something then you’ve already lost. Learning can’t be optimal unless the student feels like they are learning because they want to be learning. This is obviously tricky for most educators because they are required to maintain ‘control’ of their classroom, which generally requires that all of the students are doing the same thing at the same time, but there are ways to simulate autonomy to the point where it is still effective. If you create an environment where the student can choose from multiple learning options and even move in between them as they please then that will go a long way toward increasing autonomy.
Assuming there is some degree of autonomy then I think the focus needs to be on progress. How ever the learning is taking place, if there is a sense of progress then that will motivate a student beyond almost anything else. It’s possible to create a sense of progress through gamification techniques like levels and badges, but I think it’s much more potent if you can figure out a way for the student to get more organic feedback through the learning itself. So, rather than being awarded a badge for doing something, you make it obvious to the student that they are now capable of doing something they couldn’t do before they learned what ever skill or knowledge they are working on. This is tricky, though. It take a lot of creativity to get this process right, but if you can create natural feedback loops that provide a sense of progress frequently through out the process I think you’ll end up with a highly motivated student that is charging ahead without any prodding.
Even the best learning environments are probably not going to be able to prevent plateaus from occurring in a student’s learning. Plateaus seem to happen even under the best circumstances. The student simply stops making more progress or the progress slows down enough to the point where frustration sets in. This is where you need emotional support. A little encouragement or just support for walking away for a bit. Sometimes students just need to feel like it’s ok to give up for a little while, to take a break and come back later.
Personally I would be careful not to provide too much support or support too quickly as it’s good for students to feel frustrated and try to deal with both the emotion and to discover the best strategies for dealing with that emotion on their own. Just being present and available is usually the right amount of support. Ideally you want the students to find the recognition of progress and the strength to deal with frustration from within themselves, but you don’t want to take that too extremely either, sometimes they just need your support or need to know it’s ok to take a break.
Again, this is just a working theory, but there is a lot of research to back it up in addition to my own anecdotal experiences. A good Montessori classroom is a great example of this theory in practice. The three factors described above are constantly taking place and the result are very impressive.