Dear Reader,

How we motivate our children to learn seems to be a perpetual issue. I find it comes up in conversations frequently, and I know I have blogged on it many times before (see here and here). A book I read recently, Scott Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, touches on this issue as well. Kaufman sets out to find what contributes to one’s ability to succeed and even to excel in their chosen domain. He comes up with quite a long list of factors, but among them is motivation. Not surprisingly, he finds that one is more likely to thrive if internally motivated:

“Rather than focus on how to make people more motivated for the possibility of external rewards (such as money, grades), we should focus, instead, on creating the learning conditions, experiences, and positive expectations that will make it more likely that students will both want and like to engage in school and the world.” (p. 100)

What is going to make kids want to engage? Finding a subject or activity they love helps:

“Think of the kid who is immediately attracted to the violin and spends hours and hours practicing . . . Or the young girl who finds numbers beautiful . . . These children find these activities inherently rewarding. And their skills in their respective areas build up because they seek out opportunities to do the things that they find rewarding . . . (p. 15)

Unfortunately, while the child who finds and is allowed to pursue their interests finds life more and more rewarding, the one who starts off badly often ends up in a downward spiral:

“Meanwhile, the child who finds school difficult, unrewarding, and perhaps even boring, is fed a less enriched curriculum, which exerts downward pressure on both expectations and achievement.” (p. 295)

Not every child is going to find their passion early in life, but we must not think that this means that it is not out there. And we must be preparing them for the time when they too begin to soar. One way we can keep them going is by encouraging a right mindset. Kaufman speaks of fixed and growth mindsets. My understanding of this is that a fixed mindset says “I am good at X and bad at Y; that is the way it is and things will not change” whereas a growth mindset says “I can improve at both X and Y.” A fixed mindset tends to assume that the results will always be the same, whether good or bad, while a growth mindset looks for opportunities to improve and learn from one’s mistakes. While one’s mindset may be somewhat inborn, the educator can also affect it by the goals and feedback he provides:

“People with learning goals are all about increasing their skills. whereas those with performance goals are all about winning, and looking smart.” (p. 107)

“When students encounter instruction that induces a fixed mindset, they are more likely to focus on performance goals, and when they are taught in a way that brings out growth mindset, they are more likely to focus on learning goals.” (p. 117)

” . . .praising the ability of students after doing well on a test promoted a fixed view of ability, whereas praising the effort that contributed to the performance led to a growth mindset.” (p. 118)

The way our public schools operate, with grades being the main indicator of one’s success or failure, tends to push children to external motivation and, I think, also to a fixed mindset. Of course the teacher may counteract this, but left on their own, I would think children very easily come to see themselves as A-students or C-students. Most homeschoolers do not give grades in my experience, but we still must beware lest we begin to substitute something else for the internal motivators the child should have.

It is very interesting to me that the books I have read recently on education all seem to end up saying things that are not very different from what Charlotte Mason said a hundred years ago. Now, of course, I am reading books that appeal to me so perhaps they are not a representative sample, but nonetheless it seems that for some at least the ideas about education have not changed and there is nothing new under the sun.


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