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Educators and parents want their kids to seek challenges and persist through difficulty—but so often, they don't. It's all too familiar: John always takes the easy way out; Angel gives up at the first sign of difficulty; Anna falls apart when she gets a disappointing grade.
Of course, struggling students are especially vulnerable to helplessness and fear of failure. But even high-performing kids fall prey to test anxiety, or avoid that one subject that fills them with dread. Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?
The sad truth is that many students feel very vulnerable in school. For lots of kids, school is above all a place where they are tested and judged—often publicly—and where they feel inadequate. Sometimes, this vulnerability extends to the home, especially if parents place a very high value on perfect performance or are intolerant of failure. It's not what we intend, but it's what they experience.
The good news is that it's within our power to change this, if we know the keys to creating a risk-tolerant home and classroom culture.
Despite our best efforts as educators and parents, many students still underperform or struggle academically. Most teachers observe that their students would succeed if only they would invest more effort in their work. In some cases, we see a grave lack of student engagement leading to classroom management challenges, low student achievement, and high drop-out rates.
While some studies cite boredom and disinterest as the cause of these problems, perhaps they are actually symptoms of a broader issue: lack of motivation. Numerous studies have shown that, as student motivation goes up, so do effort and student achievement, in both short and long term situations. In addition, attention, which is a scarce resource in most classrooms, has also been proven to increase with kids’ motivation levels. As we empower students to increase their own ability to focus and apply effort, we witness them becoming better able to process relevant information, which impacts their ability to succeed academically. This, in turn, will set the foundation for an intrinsic love of learning, by teaching students to value their own progress and growth.
Here are three techniques you can use to increase students' motivation:
Last month, I wrote about creating a risk-tolerant classroom environment as a way to empower students to seek challenge and risk mistakes—core principles of a growth mindset. But how can a classroom be risk-tolerant when there are tests and grades at every turn?
Recently, I gave a workshop in an elementary school full of creative and dedicated educators. These teachers thought their kids were wonderful, and they wanted nothing more than to simply nurture their enthusiasm, creativity, and growth. But the students (and their parents) were full of anxiety about grades and state tests.
It's no easier for the teachers. Assessment and grading are among the most complex and controversial areas of teaching, because they're expected to do so many different things: motivate students to do their work; measure progress towards learning goals; identify and promote talent and merit; and hold schools and, increasingly, individual teachers, accountable. Many educators are struggling with these competing priorities, and wonder how they can foster a growth mindset at the same time.
We often speak about mindset as an attribute of a person—we say that a child “has a fixed mindset,” “I’m working to develop a growth mindset,” or even, “She has a fixed mindset about math”—and much of our research has focused on how individuals’ mindset beliefs influence their feelings, choices, and outcomes. But as we know from other research (on the impact of praise and of teaching about a growth mindset), the environment has a big impact on our mindsets too. This is no less true for adults than for kids. Try this thought experiment:
Imagine that, in your workplace, your performance is judged solely by a set of “high stakes” events: the number of sales you make, cases you win in court, or students’ scores on an annual exam. How much you have learned and improved are not considered; your helpfulness with your colleagues is irrelevant; your willingness to work hard and to learn does not matter. Furthermore, no one provides any support to help you improve; it’s “sink or swim” (really, really fast). Your colleagues are competitive and unwilling to share information and strategies, and your supervisor is remote and inflexible.
by David Dockterman, Ed.D., & Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D.
With all the media excitement about grit and "non-cognitive" skills, educators might conclude that to ensure students' success we just need to get them to resist eating marshmallows, as documented in the well-known experiment that revealed that children who managed to refrain from eating a marshmallow while the experimenter stepped out of the room had greater academic and life success (Mischel et al., 2011).
The ability to self-regulate and persist in the face of challenge is indeed a critical factor in student academic and life performance. However, teaching "gritty" behaviors directly may not be successful if students don't have the mindset, strategies, and supports they need to motivate and sustain their growth (Farrington et al., 2012). Core beliefs, content-specific skills, and classroom culture are also essential to success.