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Motivation is motivation . . . no matter what your age

Engagement is such a hot topic these days that I’ve been reading a great deal on what motivates us at work. When I read Kim Marshall‘s succinct synthesis of Kathleen Cushman’s article “Eight Conditions of Motivated Learning,” I was struck by similarity to the current thinking of business managers and human resources professionals. No matter our age — adolescents, adults, or children — motivation depends on our perceived value of the activity,  expectations of success, and is inhibited by stress. A synopsis of Cushman’s article, based on her interviews with hundreds of adolescents, follows.

In this Kappan article, Kathleen Cushman (What Kids Can Do) shares her equation on motivation: V x E = M (Value times Expectancy equals Motivation). In other words, if students value an activity and expect to be successful, they will be motivated. After interviewing hundreds of adolescents on the conditions that increase school motivation, she distilled the following:

    • Condition #1: We feel okay. “The stresses that students experience, at school or outside of it, take biological priority in the brain over learning,” says Cushman. “Learning is very difficult when elemental sensations – fear, shame, hunger, exhaustion, loss, even distraction – stand in the way.” Students need to feel safe and cared for, the school and classroom culture need to be supportive, and it’s important that teachers focus on inquiry rather than getting students competing for the right answer
    • Condition #2: It matters. “Even when the subject doesn’t appeal, students are more willing to engage if it presents an intriguing puzzle or an issue of fairness,” says Cushman. For example, a New York City student was unenthusiastic about a science unit on fueling the car of the future, but she lit up when the teacher played an introductory video showing that oil is a finite resource and almost everything people do depends on it.
    • Condition #3: It’s active. When the curriculum is hands-on, collaborative, and fun, and when it helps students come to grips with high-level concepts, even reluctant learners tune in and learn – for example, Skyping with 16-year-olds in foreign countries, visiting a dim sum restaurant (chicken feet!), or doing a treasure hunt at the city’s historical society.
    • Condition #4: It stretches us. Students appreciate being pushed to their limits (that’s what they experience in computer games). One student said of her teachers, “They see what you’re, like, able to be, and they just make it so much bigger.” Another student said, “When I’m challenged the perfect amount, I just wanna keep repeating the process. I wanna make it something I’m great at.”
    • Condition #5: We have a coach. “Students said they felt most motivated by teachers who acted like coaches in the classroom,” says Cushman, “demonstrating new skills, providing support and encouragement, and helping them learn from their mistakes.” Going over quizzes and tests is an ideal forum for coaching – getting students to figure out where they went wrong and fix their errors and misconceptions.
    • Condition #6: We have to use it. This can be tutoring struggling classmates, engaging in a mock trial in a history class, or sharing new insights on nutrition with family members.
    • Condition #7: We think back on it. “In the rush to move on, teachers may forget to provide students an opportunity to reflect on the work just concluded,” says Cushman. “What was difficult for them, and how did they manage those challenges? What would they do differently next time? How did they grow?”
    • Condition #8: We plan our next steps. Students need to see life connections in simple tasks like doing homework and major efforts like senior year capstone projects. “With enough prior scaffolding in self-managing their activities,” says Cushman, “students can treat the senior project as a culminating demonstration that they’re ready for adult life.”

“Eight Conditions for Motivated Learning” by Kathleen Cushman in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2014 (Vol. 95, #8, p. 18-22), www.kappanmagazine.com; Cushman can be reached at kathleencushman@mac.com.