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What does Motivated Mean? Re-Presenting Learning, Technology, and Motivation in Middle Schools via New Ethnographic Writing

This article offers a critique of the way middle schoolers are often positioned as generalizable objects that can be acted upon to produce measurable increases in motivation and learning. The critique invites a reconsideration and cultural analysis
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Re-Presenting Learning, Technology, and Motivation in Middle Schools via New Ethnographic Writing Justin Olmanson  ( University of Nebraska at Lincoln )  Abstract This article offers a critique of the way middle schoolers are often positioned as generalizable objects that can be acted upon to produce measurable increases in motivation and learning. The critique invites a reconsideration and cultural analysis of some of the dominant discourses and perceptions of technology,  young adolescence, and the study of motivation. The use of New Ethnographic Writing—a method that performs a cultural critique via extended scenes—connects to the roles and status of motivation, technology, and educational research methods deployed within public schools. Coupled with weak theory, this approach offers a way to understand young adolescents as navigating and wayfaring within complex everyday ecologies that escape notions of developmental level, test scores, motivational indices, and GPA calculations. New Ethnographic Writing and weak theory invite a productive re-orientation to the interactions that take place every day in schools. This invitation comes via a methodological sideways move that draws on non-representational theory and literary non-fiction to form a mode of address that makes relational and momentarily cartographic types of knowing and understanding possible.  A Map This study offers a reconsideration of the dominant narratives surrounding young adolescence, motivation, and technology in middle schools while also suggesting a role for new ethnographic writing and weak theory  within educational research. It presents a kind of knowledge project whose objects undulate  within the landscape of public school classrooms  but get overlooked because they are not easily captured, categorized, or quantified, do not directly speak to the goal of making middle schooling more effective and thus have scant history of academic valuation. This is a knowledge project that affords tip-of-the-tongue insight, but does not add a bullet point to the list of ‘ What we, as a field, know about motivation and technology in schools. ’ Rather it makes its mark by marking the reader as changed by the experience. This style of non-representational scholarship cultivates understandings that both accrue—page after page—and flash up in moments of resonance. In the next section I review how motivation and the practice of embedding motivational elements in learning technologies is generally positioned  within schools. I then describe the methodology and the writing techniques that constitute New Ethnographic Writing. I offer several extended scenes written from a first-person limited perspective and conclude with sections that pull  back from the imagined center of ongoing conversations about motivation and technology in middle schools and inhabit a tangle of meaning and affect (Thrift, 2008; Vagle, 2015). Motivation in Education The quest to understand what motivates individuals to act has at least a 2400 year history (Bolles, 2014). Rooted first in philosophy and more recently in psychology, inquiry into human persistence and action forms the field of motivation (Reeve, 2008). External, internal,  behavioral, cognitive, altruistic, and hedonistic theories of motivation have enjoyed alternating—often adversarial—periods of popularity and disuse in explaining the  biological, experiential, and cognitive amalgam of motivation (Burns, 2008). Surveys, inventories, multivariate analyses, pre-posttests, self-reports, and participant observations have  been used to identify factors that lead to heightened engagement and inform or contradict existing theories of motivation (Schunk, Meece, & Pintrich, 2014). Born out of a desire to identify, measure, and influence factors that predict learning and achievement, educational institutions have looked to studies of motivation in hopes of using their findings to reduce student resistance to the 1Olmanson: What does Motivated Mean?Published by ScholarWorks @ UVM, 2016  curriculum and cultivate engagement with it (Ames, 1990; Curwin, 2010). To those ends, teachers, designers, and researchers have  worked for decades to embed elements in instructional designs that might increase  volition, persistence, self-regulation, and effort (Gagné, Wager, Golas, & Keller, 2005; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2012). From workbooks to online textbooks to pedagogical strategies to game-based learning, most educational materials and learning environments include facets meant to overcome competing interests and motivate students to engage with the official curriculum. Scholars in educational psychology have created research designs capable of indirectly measuring the impact materials, interactions, and environments have on students (Keller, 2009; Reeve, 2008). Capturing, categorizing, and often quantifying levels of engagement, interest, persistence, attitude, intensity, direction, self-efficacy, collective-efficacy, and affect are approaches used in determining and attempting to influence a student’s willingness to learn (Brophy, 2004; Klassen & Krawchuk, 2009). These methods of inquiry into the motivational efficacy of different instructional approaches and designs remain largely rooted in the objectivistic, positivistic foundations of psychology and educational psychology (Cokley, 2003; Steinmetz, 2005). While this paradigmatic predilection has supported extensive lines of inquiry, it has constrained others (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Drawing on New Ethnographic Writing, weak theory, and non-representational theory the approach herein offers a way around these constraints by sidestepping the methodological maxim that motivation, technology, middle schoolers, and the experience of middle school can and must be explicitly measured to be understood. Instead, this approach—realized through writing—creates an accrued legibility, a waxy buildup of perspective and suggestive interplays not normally possible in school-based research (Stewart, 2011). Method and Theoretical Underpinnings New Ethnographic Writing is a form of ethnographic research as well as a theoretical assemblage that invites readers to compositionally inhabit a context, experience interactions, and rethink narratives that populate our academic worlds (Stengers, 2011; Stewart, 2014). In this approach, scenes track dynamics within and between moments—moments that “ don’t add up but are always threatening to”   (Stewart, 2008, p. 72) where “things jump into relation but remain unglued”   (Stewart, 2015, p. 19). Data analysis is embedded in the writing process. Rather than beginning  with base codes, counting frequencies, or filtering what happened   through a priori theory or theoretical framework (Anfara & Mertz, 2015), observed interactions are written up  without immediately categorizing, flattening, or making them mean  (Stewart, 2007). The resultant text is a form of literary nonfiction with academic overlays, a (non)fictocritical turn—a sideways move around a search for answers in the form of a number, set of categories, or a predictive theory and toward a heterarchical flow of entanglements and legibilities (Muecke, 2008; St. Pierre, 2013; Stewart, 2014). New Ethnography or New Ethnographic Writing is a process of narrative creation, built out of the researcher’s extended personal experiences  within an environment, written in a way that is accessible to the public and pertinent to academics (Goodall, 2000). It is a process that seeks not to get it right   but rather strives to get it variably nuanced and contoured. This writing up of ethnographic experience involves a concerted effort on the part of the researcher to resist and delay the assignation of meaning to the objects of inquiry, attending to their particularities instead of scanning past them  based on presupposition, theoretical logics, or social science imperatives (Vannini, 2015). Moreover, this type of writerly poesies performs the powerful tensions that circulate amidst what is scientifically knowable and elements that are pulled together in moments only to move on, alone or in groups—resisting scientific knowing or explanation but remaining quite real (Stewart, 2015). By simply deploying ‘  prefabricated knowledge ’ about our ethnographic object(s), Stewart (2007) writes that we risk a type of observational, interpretational, and analytical glaucoma, where the more we focus on the meaning we ascribe to the patterns we observe, the harder it is to see past them and back to the press of forces that make up moments that might be understood in a multiplicity of non-representational ways. The  will to find meaning, to make a series of observed events, taken from a larger pool of collected moments, mean  something is an expected, almost unavoidable part of educational and social science research yet the 2  Middle Grades Review, Vol. 2, Iss. 2 [2016], Art. 3   way it is enacted often fails to resonate with the “ stories, tangles of associations, accrued layers of impact and reaction ” (Stewart, 2008, p. 72) that get lost, overlooked or over-categorized in the push to understand, write it up, make it mean, and get it out (Thrift, 2008). This type of inquiry is less about merging traditional qualitative analysis with more literary forms of expression than about reorienting the field or education to research methods that take pains to present human interaction with much of its cultural illegibility or polysemy intact. In this way, moments of ethnopoesis, local epistemologies, histories, policies, and academic theories can indeed circulate within a text—just as they circulate  within the research experience. Foley (1995) too, though in a different way and on a different scale  writes of “  personal encounters”   of “ more fact than fiction”   (p. ix) within the “postmodern era of anthropology”   (p. 204). From these and other examples   I find—and lose (Lather, 2007; Thorp, 2005)—my way among personal, historic, societal, and academic discourses, using different modes of address and different processes for making meaning out of the research experience (Lather, 2007). In this piece, I use ethnographic methods culminating in writing (Pollock, 2006; Stewart, 2007) and influenced by weak theory (Sedgwick & Frank, 2003; Stewart, 2008) and non-representational methods (Thrift, 2008;  Vannini, 2015) to track and consider a tangle of circulating effects and interactions encountered in a middle school science classroom. The moments I include below describe and animate contexts wherein students, teachers, technologies, research, and curricula converge.  Weak Theory (Sedgwick & Frank, 2003) differs from traditional or strong theories in that it is not defensive about its status compared with other theories, it is not fixated on prediction or self-preservation or internal fidelity. It allows researchers to think and write beyond what they can correlate or triangulate with three forms of evidence. Instead it affords an opportunity to inhabit spaces of possibility—alerting themselves and readers to other ways of understanding via other ways of attending (Stewart, 2007)—particularly via experiencing written events as an accrual of cultural accretion that hangs together in rhizomatic ways (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983). Strong or predictive theories and the frameworks they underpin and enable have come to be seen as central to understanding middle schools and middle schoolers. Yet, there is room for other sideways moves and insurrectionist approaches (Vagle, 2015). Weak theory and non-representational theory—which focuses on stepping bodily into the tangled relational flow of everyday life with a sense of irreducible wonder (Thrift, 2008)—are rhizomatic moves that allow researchers to hit the reset button so to speak, to slip past the Zipf’s law-like constraints of middle grades research wherein inquiry and attentions are meted out following a decline curve beginning  with the usual themes studied via the usual methods (Brinegar, 2015). Slipping past these logarithmically winnowing, normalizing constraints affords researchers the opportunity to follow lines of flight toward expansive non-adversarial, non-linear, non-paranoid, non-representational ways of doing knowledge work. This reterritorialization of scholarship repositions and complicates the steady march of contemporary research on motivation, middle schools, and technology as we know it (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983). The extended scenes that make up the context and data for this study took place at Dawlish Middle School [DMS], a pseudonym. This inquiry was a minor piece of a multi-district research effort to inquire into the impact a problem-based learning curriculum called Alien Rescue exerts on student understanding, motivation, and attitudes toward science, scientists, careers in science, and space science. My role was to observe two DMS science teachers and their 8 th  grade students as they implemented the two-week Alien Rescue space science curriculum after-which I was to contribute data and analysis that could provide a unique perspective on how the curriculum influenced student motivation and learning.  While I was on campus, I sat in on class sessions, ate lunch with participating teachers, and briefly became part of the school ecology (Spradley, 1980; Stewart, 1996). I looked, listened, interacted, and made jottings—paying particular attention to what people, myself included, said, what they did, what they were  wearing, the rooms we were in, as well as noting my internal dialogue (Emerson, 1995). On fieldwork days I made post-observation audio recordings during the drive back to the 3Olmanson: What does Motivated Mean?Published by ScholarWorks @ UVM, 2016
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