One of the central tenets of teaching is motivating students to learn; but our success rate has not been very good. This seems odd, considering that research has shown nearly all children are born with an innate desire to learn. Babies do not have to be bribed to learn to speak or walk. A preschooler won’t require a treat to encourage her to look at a book. Kids don’t have to coerce each other into learning a new game. Children are natural learners who possess an innate curiosity which motivates them to learn.

So what happens to this intrinsic motivation when the children start school? Why do teachers have to jump through hoops to convince students to do their work? Parents, teachers, and administrators are continually seeking solutions to this ever-present problem. Every year publishers hope to find a new curriculum or program they can tout as the latest educational solution to student motivation. Millions of dollars are spent, rather unsuccessfully, on motivating children to engage in learning.

It is the fantasy of every teacher to have excited, engaged students. Picture a classroom full of students who are so busy learning that they don’t have time to misbehave. Imagine kids who can’t wait to get home to do their homework. What would parents do with all their time if the nightly homework battles were eliminated? What would happen if grades and tests mattered less than real learning? Is such a scenario possible?

Perhaps this will happen if adults can shift their perspective. Instead of telling kids how and what they should learn, maybe it is time to ask them what they want to learn and how they want to go about it. Sugata Mitra*, the inventor of Cloud School, calls this approach, “self-organized learning” and believes it could revolutionize education. His approach is about providing ideas that spark curiosity, encouraging kids to ask questions, then standing back to let them figure it out with their peers. Students are taught how to search for answers, collaborate for solutions, and motivate others to help problem-solve. His “Cloud School” experiments, have demonstrated just how intellectually motivated children are when given the time, freedom, and tools to learn.

Cameron Herold*, a highly successful entrepreneur, believes our schools crush curiosity and discourage risk taking. He thinks schools should stop focusing all their time and efforts on their students’ failures. Instead, he believes teachers should help each student identify their own passions and strengths. Then they should connect their students to resources that would help them excel in those areas. Our children will live in a world that is very different from ours. If we teach to maintain the status quo, we cannot prepare them for the future. How can we expect our children to solve the problems of tomorrow if we disconnect them from their ability to question, explore, imagine, and invent?

Ken Robinson* has made it his life’s work to bring creativity back into our schools. He believes that the past focus on teaching to the test has squandered the talents of millions of children. Our school system has tried to teach children as if they were a uniform product, rather than diverse individuals. This model focuses on conformity and achievement in a narrow field of study. Consequently, many children have lost interest in learning. Robinson believes we have a culture of compliance that sacrifices our children’s talents. “All kids have tremendous talents — and we squander them pretty ruthlessly.” The role of teachers should be to mentor, stimulate, facilitate, provoke, and engage. Robinson believes if you spark curiosity, and give children the resources to explore, they will learn without too much further assistance. “One of the roles of education is to awaken and develop powers of creativity.”

Kiran Ben Sethi’s* Riverside School in India does just that. She has thrown out traditional schooling to focus on a “contagious” educational experience where learning is designed by the children and takes place in the real world. She asks, “When are we going to wake up and recognize the potential that resides in each child? When will you include the child?” Her approach takes children through a journey that builds awareness of what needs to be changed, teaches them to be open to being changed, and eventually empowers them to lead the change. Kiran asked children across India to pick one problem or idea that is important to them and figure out a way to take meaningful action, and they did. She reports that children were designing solutions for a diverse range of problems, everything from loneliness to adult illiteracy to plastic bag recycling. The children found ways to tackle big problems and change lives. They discovered what moves them to action, what skills they possess which enable them to take action, and the sweet joy of seeing their efforts bear results. Children are a powerful force.

Allison Gopnik*, a psychologist whose research has recently shown the sophisticated learning and decision-making of babies, states that, “Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species.” Kids are driven to figure out the world. Innate curiosity, restlessness, and unwillingness to accept the status quo are a student’s best assets, and a teacher’s best friend. It is time for educators to tap into that natural drive and help children reach their full potential.

That is the goal of my interest-based learning center lab, Big Minds Unschool. Here, a small group of twice-exceptional children are free to design their day, select their activities, and socialize freely. I facilitate student-selected projects that are based on their genuine interests. They are encouraged to dream, play, take chances, build, and explore. According to Socrates, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” I believe we need to give kids enough kindling to get them started and then stand back while they build a mighty bonfire.

(*To find out more about these projects, go to: TED Talks


3 thoughts on “Motivating Students

    1. Montessori is great in so many ways, but it still has limitations on what the kids can do. For example, if you have a 5th grader who wants to do Calculus, they wouldn’t be able to in a Montessori setting. I love Montessori’s global connections philosophy that has kids doing projects that connect them to the world. I have volunteered at a public charter Montessori, so I have seen them in action, but I want even more autonomy for kids. I think they shouldn’t be required to do a standard curriculum, I think kids should focus on what they love to do. It is most likely what will evolve into a career for them some day anyway.

  1. This sounds a bit like “unschooling”, where learning is guided by student interest, not curriculum templates. Also, I am reminded of my experience with Inspired Learning Model, which focuses on learners’ successes to motivate continued learning.
    Is it my imagination, or is there more emphasis on the natural learning approach in the aftermath of NCLB?

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