Saturday, January 19, 2013

Post 1: The Nitty-Gritty

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty...what is it that really motivates students to learn? Are we motivated extrinsically by the carrot, the promise of reward, the candy, the sticker, the grade? Or are we more truly motivated by less-measurable factors like curiosity, mastery, and pleasure?

Daniel Pink's TED talk on The Puzzle of Motivation (and there's a great RSAnimate version of the talk here, for all you visual learners) led me eventually to an interesting guest on Pink's Office Hours segment. Pink interviews Paul Tough, author of the new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

Tough hypothesizes that it is not necessarily intelligence, IQ, or success on tests which measure those types of cognitive skills that determine a child's long-term success in school and in life. Instead, he says that more intangible skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control play a greater role in determining a child's success. Consider also the role of grit (yes, grit) in a child's development. He cites the research of Dr. Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effect of grit as a predictor of success. (Duckworth's research is not limited to student success, but instead human development. She gives an excellent TedxBlue lecture on grit, and you can measure your own gritty-ness on her Grit Scale. I scored a 4.13, if you're curious.)

Tough  points our the surprising ways that parents do - and do not - prepare their children for adulthood. He notes that helping a child deal with failures and manage adversity can increase the child's persistence and grit, and ultimately help them succeed. Non-cognitive skills are more often developed within the context of meaningful relationships, including relationships with other adults (coaches, music instructors, scout leaders, etc.) which influence children to develop these characteristics.

Tough defines grit as "perseverance in the pursuit of a passion," but notes that the passion must be the child's own, not the parents' passion, or the teachers' passion. This ties closely to the theory of self-determination and autonomy, which indicate high intrinsic motivations.

I am totally fascinated by this stuff. A little known fact about me among my class peers is that we home-schooled our older son, who incidentally has some special education needs, for two years in first and second grades. The question of motivating that little guy was always first in my mind. How can I make today's work more interesting, more relevant? How can I use his natural curiosity to maximum advantage for learning? When it's your child and your responsibility (which it inherently is whether your child attends public school or not), motivation becomes Very. Very. Important.

Additional note:  I was also reminded of the controversy of the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, who took quite a lot of heat a couple of years ago for her non-conventional, non-Western approach to parenting. One might say that she was the primary motivator of and for her daughters, without any kind of external or extrinsic reward for them (except possibly being the best at everything they set their hands to). However, we read the following in Annie Murphy Paul's 2001 article in Time magazine, which adds evidence to Tough's claim that we do no great service to our children when we insulate them from adversity:
Most surprising of all to Chua's detractors may be the fact that many elements of her approach are supported by research in psychology and cognitive science. Take, for example, her assertion that American parents go too far in insulating their children from discomfort and distress. Chinese parents, by contrast, she writes, "assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." In the 2008 book A Nation of Wimps, author Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today magazine, marshals evidence that shows Chua is correct. "Research demonstrates that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don't develop what psychologists call 'mastery experiences,' " Marano explains. "Kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they've learned that they're capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals." Children who have never had to test their abilities, says Marano, grow into "emotionally brittle" young adults who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.


  1. These are really interesting thoughts! There was a study done on preschoolers in Michigan that were followed throughout their life - the Perry School study - and it shows that the soft skills like perseverance that were fostered in preschool were the ones that helped the children throughout their lives. I'm glad that you found that as well. The Grit Scale is fascinating! I scored at 3.5 :)

  2. I really really enjoyed reading your post and love getting to read from your point of view (having been through "life" - used loosely of course - as in having children and going through their experiences with school as well as your own), it really brings out another side of things that I possibly hadn't considered.
    I took the "grit" test and scored a 3.63 and I'm pretty proud of it! I think being from the south (this could totally be my perception) it's somewhat of a good thing to have "grit" and be "tough". I also think that growing up through a sport cultivated that as well. I look forward to working with you throughout 2 classes and learning together!

  3. I really enjoyed the RSAnimate version of Pink's "Puzzle of Motivation" talk. After watching the full version of this talk, it was nice to view his argument in a visual manner. Additionally, I was fascinated by the Grit Scale and the significance grit plays in a child's motivation. I scored a 3.63.