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Finding the Motivation to Learn

Although remote learning caused by COVID-19 has been lauded as more efficient and affordable than previous modes of instruction, and has potential to alleviate student debt in the future, one of the most common obstacles to success posed by online school is a lack of motivation. This has prompted a slew of memes, articles, and dramatic spikes in the Google search term “I have no motivation.” For teachers and students reaching the limits of their online learning capacity, it helps to revisit why we learn in the first place and discern ways to re-enchant one’s love of learning.

For many students and teachers, the main reason to pursue an education is to make a living. However, 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells readers that the everyday actions meant to sustain our lives, such as “eat[ing] or drink[ing],” we must “do it all for the glory of God.” Indeed, one’s entire life is “a living sacrifice” and an act of worship. Every assignment submitted, class taught, and Zoom session attended is for God, so Christians must complete them “as working for the Lord” and “not for human masters,” working at “it with all your heart.” A robust awareness of the true purpose of work is essential when those “human masters,” peers, and students are on the opposite end of a video conference call. In addition to the belief that all actions are done for the glory of God, learning is itself prized in scripture.

The wise King Solomon once wrote, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Many of those intelligent hearts were biblical characters, whose education is documented in the Bible. For instance, God gave Daniel and his friends knowledge of all types of literature and learning, as well as the ability to interpret dreams and visions. Similarly, “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.” These figures had extensive knowledge of governance, leadership, politics, culture, and literature. As in biblical times, education remains a vital component of equipping God’s people to fulfill His plans for them. Furthermore, the pursuit of knowledge in various disciplines can demonstrate the beauty of God Himself.

There are many academics that illuminate the beauty of God through their work. One such figure is the late French and American mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, whose 96th birthday was celebrated with a Google Doodle last month. He was homeschooled due to his mother’s “fear of epidemics,” learning to read maps, play chess, and think creatively under the tutelage of his uncle. He remained interested in the visual world of math and geometry throughout his life. He went on to study in Paris and later Pasadena, California to earn degrees in engineering and mathematics, seeking to “find order [in nature] where everyone else had only seen chaos” (229).

In 1980, Mandelbrot was crunching the numbers of a simple equation, using IBM’s computers to graph its iterations, when he stumbled upon the mathematical order he was searching for: a revolutionary image of a fractal which was later termed the Mandelbrot set. The figure before him was strange, yet, when he looked closer, he realized that each small component of the shape was representative of the entire figure. Zooming in further revealed that each smaller portion mimicked its whole, infinitely. The mysterious, psychedelic-looking shape evades explanation, but makes sense visually.

The pattern mathematically models what was formerly considered random by Euclidean geometry (think cones, rectangles, and Pythagorean theorem). Mandelbrot’s discovery proved that objects like mountains, lightning, coastlines, clouds, and parts of the human body, such as its blood distribution and airway structures, can be mathematically modeled. Seemingly random phenomena, such as “Weather patterns, stock market price variations and galaxy clusters have all proven to be fractal in nature.” Fractals are even at the heart of ancient African architecture, such as in Zambia and Mali, and jewelry designs, such as Ethiopian Orthodox crosses.

Mandelbrot’s work and its diverse application revealed the underlying order and design present in all of creation, demonstrating what the psalmist wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” Mandelbrot’s story is just one example that illustrates that education can be used not only to secure a livelihood, but also to continually discover God’s character in His creation. As Job writes, “But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.”

For students and teachers weary of school, remember that the educational journey can be refreshing and enjoyable when done with other people. The joy of a common pursuit is described in the Bible as: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.” If school has become a drain, reach out to peers and talk to teachers and students–even in a remote learning environment. The communal aspect of learning can go a long way by making education meaningful and helping regain a sense of motivation.

Decades later, people still refer back to teachers that sparked a love of learning within them or made them feel included. There is no one better suited for motivating students than those blessed with understanding and endowed with the gift of teaching. Professor, priest, and educational writer, James V. Schall once wrote, “the activity of learning” is at its best “when student and teacher are addressing themselves to the matter at hand . . .  with a kind of mutual awe before something they neither created nor made” (33).