2,4,6,8… How Can We Motivate?

It’s back to school season. New hopes, new visions, new plans for the future. Everyone starts the new year with a sense of anticipation. This time I’ll try harder. I’ll do better. I’ll pay attention. I’ll give it my best shot. And many times they do achieve a greater degree of success.

But often those new hopes are dashed just about as soon as the new notebook gets scratched, the pencils gets chewed up, and the backpacks show wear and tear. Children, like all of us, are creatures of habit. They fall into the same patterns year after year. And all too often those hopes and dreams for a better and brighter future fall to the wayside.

What’s missing here? In a word, “motivation.” What is motivation? It’s the ability to improve our efforts and rouse ourselves into action. It’s the magic ingredient that adds a measure of oomph to the day. It’s an essential factor of learning.

As soon as we wake up, we are (hopefully) motivated to join the world. Some of us are motivated by the salary we get at the end of the week. Others are motivated by the screaming baby who wants her bottle now. And still others are motivated by the fact that a chavrusa is waiting.

Sometimes motivation comes from external factors, such as these. We need to accomplish certain things because others expect it of us, because we have a responsibility to be there, or because we will be rewarded in some way. Other times, motivation is internal. We may be motivated by a passion to work to our fullest potential. We may be motivated because we believe in ourselves. Or we may be motivated because we wish to attain a personal goal.

What’s the secret to motivating students? It’s probably one of the most perplexing issues facing educators and parents alike. And whose job is it anyway? The answer to this question is clear. It’s the responsibility of every adult who comes in regular contact with kids.

Fires in the Mind

Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and documentarian, researches motivation in students. In her more recent books Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us about Motivation and Mastery and The Motivation Equation: How Youth Learn, Cushman shares decades worth of research as to how motivation works and how parents and teachers can help increase motivation.

Cushman interviews thousands of teens asking the question: “What does it take to get really good at something?”

And, in her book she writes, “A simple question, it reverberates at many levels. It matters equally to youth and adults, rich and poor, professional, artist, and tradesperson. Its answers have the potential to transform our schools and communities. And exciting research on the question of developing expertise has emerged in recent decades from the field of cognitive psychology.

Powerful new evidence shows that opportunity and practice have far more impact on high performance than does innate talent.”

She explains that success comes from the following: “We believe in what we are doing. We value it and doing it really matters to us. We believe that, providing we work hard, we can do it. We expect that we can succeed.” And, when we are motivated to do something (even if it is a non-academic pursuit), we are more likely to succeed in all other areas (academic included).

The actual equation, according to Cushman, looks like this:

Value x Expectation of Success = Motivation

How to Motivate

Below, I’ve compiled a list of different ways parents or teachers can help children find their own motivation.

  • Help them “catch a spark” from family talents. Find out what family influences exist. Maybe someone is really talented at sewing or basketball at home; maybe someone else watches his mother writes short verses of poetry on napkins. If those activities already have value, then the child will already have half of the motivation equation.
  • Help them “catch a spark” just for fun. Sometimes you can help a child place value on something he or she has never done before. Cushman shared a story of a student who had the freedom at a school retreat to do anything from among the several activities they offered. The student chose to canoe, something she had never done before. And, when she realized how much fun she had doing something completely new, she was more open to trying other new things like math problems.
  • Be guide. As a teacher or a parent, when kids get stuck (and start to doubt their ability to succeed), we can step in and coach them through that difficult zone. Then, we can step back once they have regained their confidence. Help them connect their efforts to the success that they have achieved in the past. Cushman writes, “As they savor each moment of success, we can help them connect it to those moments that came before – and those that will follow.”

Provide time to try and try again. Resilience, grit, whatever you want to call it, this is an important piece of the motivation puzzle. And, by giving children the opportunity to keep coming back to the same problems and to master them, they gain a sense of confidence and success. And, for teachers looking to help students do “deliberate practice” rather than rote repetition, Cushman suggest that the practice should include the “four R’s”: readying themselves for new learning, repetition and application of knowledge and skills, reviewing material learned earlier, and revising their work.

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