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Principal’s Panui – 15 November 2019

If students aren’t motivated, learning won’t happen. What’s going on in people’s brains when they’re motivated, and what’s holding them back? There are two types of motivation: approach motivation, which directs us toward a reward, and avoidance motivation, which helps us to avoid damage. Ideally, they balance each other out. Caring adults can help students develop the motivation systems that will serve them well, long into adulthood.

Encourage curiosity and exploration. Beyond our basic needs, people are motivated by exploration, play, mastery and success. Parents can reinforce these motivations rather than being overly fearful that children will get hurt — fears that can rub off. Caring adults whom children can trust can help them figure out what to actually be afraid of and avoid.

Don’t rely on incentives. The goal is to help kids develop their own inner fire to learn. People often stop engaging in activities once they’ve been given a tangible reward for it. Systems focused solely on external rewards and punishments are unlikely to achieve sustained, productive motivation. Positive feedback is more likely to support healthy motivation.

Remind children that success is possible. We’re unlikely to be motivated to do anything if we think it’s impossible. A growth mindset — the belief that we can change and improve through practice— enables people to get motivated.

Social interaction. From babies to adolescents, social interaction is a key to motivation, releasing natural opioids that activate the brain’s reward system. In our digital world, apps and screens can be supplements for learning, but in-person interactions remain essential.

Remember we all have different intrinsic motivators. Somone intrinsically motivated to play sports might respond well to constructive criticism from a coach but another student might respond more to encouragement and get discouraged by criticism. These different motivation systems may be due to different genes and life experiences, and they might require different approaches to motivate them.

Despite the common misperception that some people naturally have or lack motivation, science shows that the nature of parent/child relationships and opportunities for safe exploration affect the development of these systems — for better or for worse.

Grace Tatter Useable Knowledge, March 7, 2019, Harvard University


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