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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Cracking the nut: unleashing students' intrinsic motivation to learn

Cracking the nut: unleashing students' intrinsic motivation to learn

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CRACKING THE NUT Unleashing students’ intrinsic motivation to learn By Greg Reiva Two of the best books dealing with student intrinsic motivation to lean are the following: Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the book called Mindset: the new psychology of success by Carol Dweck Ph.D. This summer I am again working on and reflecting upon the most pronounced issue I grapple with in the science classroom. The issue is getting students motivated to learn. It is the most vexing problem that educators like myself face because it will determine what we expect students to achieve in our schools. It is the one issue where the problem and solution both gather strength from the complexity of thought by our adolescence. Cracking the casing around this problem requires an insight into how adolescent students perceive themselves in the school environment. From this understanding teachers can design dynamic curriculum that lends to students’ skills, abilities and mindsets. This complexity of thought is a product of our students’ life experience well-seasoned in a culture that glorifies and justifies goals in terms of tangible experience. Csikszentmihalyi explains in his book, “People in a sensate culture (culture integrated around views of reality designed to satisfy the senses) are not necessarily more materialistic, but they organize their goals and justify their behavior with reference primarily to pleasure and practicality rather than to more abstract principles. The challenges they see are almost exclusively concerned with making life more easy, more comfortable, more pleasant. They tend to identify the good with what feels good and mistrust idealized values.”(p.219). When I refer to “cracking the nut”, I am addressing the need to design curriculum that breaks down the barriers that students erect in their minds, which prevents teachers from reaching students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. The goals we set before our students define the challenges they need to face as learners. Czikszenentmihaly states that , “As longs as it provides clear objectives , clear rules for action and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life” (p.215). He further states that, “People who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies, a goal that can give significance to their lives. We may refer to this process as achieving purpose. To experience flow one must set goals for one’s actions: to win a game, to make friends with a person, to accomplish something in a certain way. The goal itself is usually not important; what matters is that it focuses a person’s attention and involves it in an achievable, enjoyable activity” (p.216). From my experience working with students in science class for over 20 years, I believe that you have to meet the students where they are with respect to their knowledge, interests and experiences. It is important to design curriculum that lends to the strengths of students by incorporating both their interests and their needs as learners. Teachers have the foresight to envision a future for their students full of opportunity and personal fulfillment. Teachers have the professional expertise to develop those attributes, within their students, that are most needed so they can take on the multitude of challenges faced in their lives. Carol Dweck states in her book called Mindset, “ This low-effort syndrome is often seen as a way that adolescents assert their independence from adults, but it is also a way that students with fixed mindset protect themselves. They view the adults as saying, “Now we will measure you and see what you’ve got”. And they are answering, “No you won’t”” (p.58). Students protect their egos as they confront the hard transition of adolescence and the demands of school. It is up to the teacher to create a learning environment that accommodates the needs of these adolescent students and focuses upon a growth orientated mindset. The dynamic curriculum design structures learning as an opportunity to showcase their abilities not as a test of abilities. It will nurture and develop abilities! Carol Dweck states that, “For students with the growth mindset, it doesn’t make sense to stop trying. For them, adolescence is a time of opportunity: a time to learn new subjects, a time to find out what they like and what they want to become in the future” (p.59). The essential structure that a dynamic curriculum incorporates begins with clear well established goals that students work toward and have a chance of completing. The learning environment provides the means to attain these goals by facilitating the learning process through interesting and challenging projects and scientific investigations. Students are closely monitored during this process and the immediacy of the feedback becomes a critical factor necessary to spur motivation and to guide students on a forward thinking path. Science projects by their nature require discipline and are couched within boundaries of expectation. Students work to fulfill these expectations and at the same time experience a deep sense of enjoyment as they move through the learning process. To provide the science education that our students deserve in the 21 century requires a science curriculum that addresses real needs of our students. Curriculum is not a means to cover content as much as it should be a means to develop abilities within our students. The ability to think, reason and commit to goals are expectations in learning that science teachers should strive for in their classrooms. Science educators, in the modern classroom, adapt to changing demographics, while utilizing new cutting-edge technologies and addressing issues that affect the lives of our students. If teachers can provide an education that students perceive as meaningful in their personal development, then there is a chance that the barrier of resistance to learning (cracking the nut) will fall and students will become their own advocates for knowledge and understanding. These are the fundamental characteristics that intelligent and successful people process in our modern and globally connected world.

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Lisa Sullivan's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience. I couldn't agree more that a curriculum if designed properly is one of the keys to students' educational success and motivation.
One thing is that the world is constantly changing, and "what you need to learn and how you need to learn is changing so far" (just watched an interesting interview with Tony Blair on education), so curriculum should be flexible enough to meet the needs of that particular time.

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