"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Magic Ingredient Missing in Education - Motivation

I have a dog that has a neat little repertoire of tricks. Teaching him these tricks required two things; 1) a lot of time for repetition and 2) something to motivate him.  The second part was easy. My dog will do anything for a Pupperoni. In fact, he is so motivated by this doggie treat that just the sound of the bag rustling can cause him to run through every trick he knows, unprompted, while I am fishing one out.  Kind of makes me look unnecessary if I'm trying to show him off to friends, but at least we all know what he has learned.

If only teaching kids were as simple. The Atlantic wrote about about the missing ingredient in education reform. Emily Richmond covered a new report from the Center on Education Policy that did a metastudy on student motivation. The good news - motivation programs do sometimes work.  The bad news - There is no equivalent of Pupperoni for all students.  And in many cases, once the motivation is removed, the student stops participating.

The one common thread in the studies is that students need to see a connection between what they are learning and how it is going to help them in the real world. Without that, many students either stop attending school or act out in class due to boredom or frustration.

The human brain is a lot more complex than my dog's brain.  Humans will play all sorts of mental games with themselves to keep from being disappointed or feeling guilty. Some students will not try hard because they are convinced they do not have the innate intelligence to master something. Some won't try hard because it gives them an excuse if they fail. The only reason my dog stops trying is because either I have run out of treats, or his brain has registered that his stomach is full. Thus, motivating students is much more complex than applying simple Pavlovian techniques.

Dealing with the immature brain of a child makes finding motivation even more challenging. Adult logic would tell you, take the education while its free because you get an early start on the ladder to success and better chance at college which gives you a better chance at higher earnings over a lifetime. Otherwise, you will end up trying to get a GED, which you have to pay for, while working a low wage job and taking care of yourself and possibly a family. All the while you will be behind those who took advantage of the 12 years free the first time.  All of that means little to a kid who can barely think past lunch let alone a decade or more into the future.

Walt Gardner, who writes the Reality Check blog at Ed Week, noted that the right motivation can spur tremendous effort, "Kids will sleep out overnight in the street to get tickets to a rock concert. If you show students a connection and a purpose to what they're doing, the motivation takes care of itself."

It will be difficult for the school system to figure out what motivates each child. Blanket programs that attempt to guess at this have been a hit or miss prospect. This is why parents must stay involved in the education process. And we should be showing kids a connection between what they are being asked to do in school and what the world will ask them to do once they leave school.  Otherwise those kids will be sleeping out on the street, but not for any concert tickets.

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