Which school do you want to support?
Is a student’s attitude toward learning an “input” of educational success or an “outcome?” Clearly, students have an important role to play in their own educational destiny. Learning can be a tough climb; what makes it work?
Children can be excited about learning when they feel interested in the subject at hand and understand how what they learn in school will help them in the “real world.” Admittedly, many things, from TV to friends’ antics, compete with academics for their attention. Great teachers are masters at making learning interesting and relevant, especially when supported by compelling curricular materials.
In broad terms, there are two main approaches to making students motivated to learn: get them interested, or get them to do it anyway. Much has been written about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in education. Intrinsic motivation is desire that comes from within. When a student is fascinated with a subject, motivation to learn about it arises naturally. Boys that memorize baseball statistics are not generally doing so because they will be tested on it. Education researcher Sugata Mitra has documented some of the amazing accomplishments of children in India who band together to learn subjects that interest them.
There are two main approaches to making students motivated to learn: get them interested, or get them to do it anyway
Extrinsic motivation (which comes from without) is always second-best, but it is also important. The classic extrinsic motivator in school is the letter grade: Never mind if it’s interesting, do your homework! Parent bribes fit in the same category. The best extrinsic motivators for students may be those of the temporary, fake-it-'til-you-make-it variety. They overcome a student's initial reluctance to risk an activity in order to give the student a chance to experience the pleasure of learning it.
Extrinsic motivators can also be useful in establishing and maintaining community norms. For example, KIPP, a charter school network, uses a system of extrinsic rewards usually called "paychecks" to set and reinforce clear expectations for student behavior.
Daniel H. Pink's book Drive summarizes research about motivation, and makes a persuasive argument about the risks of relying heavily on extrinsic motivation. Though primarily intended for a business audience, his work has found significant readership in the education sector. Prior to Pink's book, the most notable work in this vein was by Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished by Rewards.
Of course, just being interested in a subject doesn't necessarily mean that a student will learn it. Motivation that gets you started can be different from complex factors that keep you going.
Carol Dweck describes student motivation in education as a matter of "mindset." When students believe that they can learn anything with effort, they can accomplish amazing things. But if they believe that their capacity to learn is "fixed," they limit themselves. Statements like "I'm bad at math" or "I'm not a good student" have a way of making themselves true. She argues with evidence that teachers and parents can influence students' mindsets in the way that they present challenges.
There is ample evidence that participation in sports and the arts engage young people in their schools, motivate them to do better academically, and teach them important life skills.
One reform effort gaining attention for its success at motivating high school students is called Linked Learning. This approach blends rigorous academics with career technical education to better prepare students for both college and career. Evaluations have shown students in these programs are much more engaged in what they’re learning and more likely to graduate.
As discussed in the lesson on education technology, there is significant movement toward using technology to help personalize the experience of learning, so that each student is presented with material that is neither too easy (thus dull) nor too advanced (thus frustrating). This is a promising area of work, and in the shift to Common Core curriculum may help to nudge forward the idea of involving students in the pacing and sequence of their own education. In the end, education is about learning, which is the work that students do when they are motivated to do it. Susan Sandler (founder of Justice Matters) does a nice job of describing a broad meaning for personalization in education.
Search all lesson and blog content here.
Not a member? Join now.
or via email
Already Joined Ed100? Sign In.
or via email