Posts Tagged ‘motivation’


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 be ware 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.


Yet More on Motivation

Dear Reader,

In preparation for the next Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I have been reading the fifth chapter of Charlotte’s sixth book, a chapter entitled “The Sacredness of Personality.” I was drawn in from the very beginning of this chapter because it has as a topic a subject I also have been considering a lot this year. that of motivation (see this earlier post or this one).

Charlotte spends a large part of this chapter discussing the various ways students can be motivated and rejecting them. She speaks of motivation through fear (picture a scene from a Dickens novel here) which has apparently largely disappeared in her own day and I am glad to say does not often appear, at least not as official policy, in our own.

But she also rejects the idea of motivation through love of the teacher. This too, she says, undermines the child’s own personality. It makes them dependent upon the beloved. Now I do think children, especially young ones, are to some degree naturally motivated by a love for their parents or even for other teachers. But we need not play upon this love and deliberately use it to motivate children.

She then speaks of motivating through “suggestion.” I do not fully understand what she means by this. She does say, “‘Suggestion’ is too subtle to be illustrated with advantage” (p.82). All I can imagine is the parent saying things along the lines of “don’t you want to . . .” and then inserting the desired behavior.  If anyone has a better idea of what is meant than I would love to hear it. I picture the subtle sort of remarks that mothers and mother-in-laws seem to be so good at. Of course these remarks often drive us in the opposite direction.

She then speaks of “influence.” This seems to be the pull of a stronger personality upon a  weaker which I am sure does not work in all cases. But even when it does, it undermines the personality of the child, making them more dependent upon the stronger one of the teacher and not allowing them to develop their own personality and interests.

Charlotte then moves on to talk about motivational methods  which work by raising a good a natural desire to an elevated place, that is by taking an inborn desire and playing upon it to the exclusion of other natural desires. We all have, for instance, a desire to excel which she calls emulation. But when we are provoked in such a way as to cause us to want to excel about all else, we stifle other desires and we work only to excel and not for the love of knowledge itself.

Similarly, we have a desire for power called ambition and a desire for society which causes us to seek the approval of others. When we feed any one of these desires through the use of grades, prizes and accolades, we warp the child’s personality. We pull it all our of shape like a sweater that has become lumpy where it shouldn’t be and no longer serves its right purpose.

The right motivation for learning is the also inborn desire for knowledge itself. We as parents, particularly homeschoolers, want a magic key that will cause our children to learn and ideally to want to learn all the things we think they need to know. But this is not something that can be forced. It is naturally present in children. If they have been in traditional schools, it has likely been stifled by all the grades and prizes which have been feeding the other desires and choking it out. We cannot force it to come back. But we can try to gently feed it. It eats good food, quality materials, living books (and art and music). We further poison it when we feed it lectures and text-books.

There are times when we actively, intentionally shape our children. This is habit training. But in my understanding thus far, it is not done in the realm of academics or knowledge itself. Habit training may be used to help a child learn to be diligent or neat in their work. But we err when we use such methods, with rewards and punishments, to try to force knowledge into our children.

And not only do we err with our outward motivations, our grades and prizes and even monetary payments, Charlotte says that we “maim or crush, or subvert” (p.80) their very personhood. That is pretty strong language and I find it a bit daunting. I think we all as parents have probably resorted to such measures at one time or another. We feel that there is some thing our children just must get, whether it be multiplication tables or their history lesson, and we use outside motivators and they work it seems. The child learns what we wanted them to. But if Charlotte is right and we have done so at the cost of their personhood, is it worth it?


More on Motivation

Dear Reader,

Do you ever find that certain topics tend to come up a lot for  a while? One recent one for me is the issue of how to motivate kids to do their schoolwork. Now, thankfully, mine don’t have much of a problem with this, but I still think about it. I have a good friend whose son is just not very motivated. He has been home-schooled all along. She is not a CM-er but she is pretty flexible in her schooling. And he is a good kid, just not too enthusiastic about learning.

And I can see how in such situations, it would be very easy to resort to using outside things to motivate one’s child, money for instance or other tangible rewards. This is what the world does, after all. When he grows up and gets a job he will be paid for it and perhaps receive other motivating agents like a good performance review, praise from his boss, “employee of the month” status. So is it so wrong to seek to motivate our children in what is essentially their job in similar ways?

As I go through Charlotte Mason’s fifth volume, Formation of Character, I find that she addresses just this topic. Here is what she has to say:

“When attempts are made to stimulate people en masse, it is through their desires. They want work or play or power, money or land, and whoever plays upon any one of these desires gets the popular ear. Because this government through the desires is the easiest kind of government it is the most common, in the school as elsewhere; prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations, these are enough to keep a school going with such vigour, such eclat, that nobody is conscious of the want of other springs of action.” (p.124)

Pretty sobering, isn’t it? It sure makes me not want to be the one who first appeals to my children’s desires to motivate them. It also addresses the fact that appealing to desires, whether with tangible rewards or with praise, works. It produces the outcome we initially sought and so we think all is good. We don’t even realize what we are missing until it is too late. The problem is in the side effects. As Charlotte says:

“It is astonishing how crude may be the character, how unformed the principles, how undeveloped the affections toward country, kindred, or kind, after a successful school career; the reason being, that the principle of government through the desires has left these things out of count. Nor is this the whole; the successful schoolboy too often develops into a person, devoid of intelligent curiosity, who hates reading, and shirks the labour of thought.” (p.125)

But it is one thing to say that money or grades are not proper motivations; we must still ask how we motivate. I think it is easier with younger children. They have a natural curiosity, love of stories, and desire to learn. Our goal with them is only to keep that alive, not to smother it. But what of the older child whose interest has already been lost?

You’ll have to take everything I say with a grain of salt since I have never had a child in this situation and successfully conquered it. But I do tend to think that every child must have an interest or talent somewhere. The key is to discover and nurture it. And often I imagine other things, meaning more traditional school subjects, must be let go for a while until the interest is stimulated. Perhaps a more unschool-y mentality that follows the child’s interests is recommended for a while. I also tend to think that lots of screen time only helps smother real interests. Charlotte’s idea of masterly inactivity is valuable here. Kids often need to be left to fend for themselves  for a while before they will do the work of entertaining themselves.

I do not think that every part of schoolwork needs to be loved and done with enthusiasm. It is not our job to make everything palatable and acceptable to our children. It is also important to learn to do one’s duty, even when it is not enjoyable. But I tend to think that in most cases one can be persuaded to make it through the spelling exercises if there is something more intriguing, perhaps a living history book, around the corner.

I also think that in a lot of cases we undervalue children’s true talents. If your child is an artist, why not let them pursue that? You can show them how math and geometry will aid them in their art (Fibonacci numbers, anyone?). You can incorporate a lot of art into history. You can use science to show them the art and beauty of creation.

What do you think? Have you had an unmotivated child? How did you handle it?


Conversations: Paying Kids to Learn and Church Music

Dear Reader,

These are two separate topics that came up in conversations I had recently. One friend was telling me how she is now paying her son for correct math problems. He was making careless mistakes and his proficiency has increased a lot now that he gets cash (which he uses to buy legos) for correct answers. Now on one hand, people do get paid for their work. But on the other hand, isn’t it better to be motivated by other things? Maybe a real enjoyment of one’s work or a desire to help others? But the truth is that my kids have never really struggled with motivation so I don’t know what I would do if one of them was truly unmotivated.

And then I sat quietly through another conversation in which two friends discussed hymns that get sung at their churches. One of them knows I am a psalm-singer; I don’t think the other does. They talked about how they loved some of the old hymns. How they can be poorly done if they are slow and to organ music. How one of their churches manages to do them well musically. And then the topic came around to hymns they don’t like. How some just have no theology or bad theology. How at grandma so-and-so’s church they just don’t sing because the hymns are all so bad and they can’t agree with them. Is there ever an appropriate time to jump and say don’t you see this is why you should sing psalms? Yes, some hymns are good just like some Christian books are good but even C.S. Lewis and Calvin are not Scripture nor are the best hymns the Word of God. And what if I like this hymn and you despise it; who decides what is good, what is true? When we sing God’s Word we don’t have these issues.



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