Motivated to learn

Posted: April 17, 2023

“Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think,” Albert Einstein once said.

But how do people, especially students, use their education to train their mind?

Curiosity, often said to be one of the most important parts of learning because it fuels the desire to learn, cannot be neglected in the education world.

Certain education models ask students to voice what they are most interested in learning, and allow them to choose their topics of interest. Even more traditional education models often allow students to choose electives, often art and music classes are popular.

But what about the classes such as math, science, English, history, and even assignments that students are required to complete? How can students cultivate their motivation, curiosity, and interests during class even when in a more structured environment?

Researchers have studied the impacts of motivation and curiosity in education for decades.

A study published in the Cell Press journal confirmed that “the more curious we are about a topic the easier it is to learn information about that topic.”

Students who are curious about what they learn are likely to absorb more information about it and become curious about other topics they might have otherwise been less interested in. This means that if students develop interest in what they are learning, it will impact both their success in that class as well as their success in other areas.

However, teachers do not hold the sole responsibility to make school interesting for their students.

“Education is ultimately what you make it,” said Leah Balster, a 9th- and 11th-grade English teacher. “If you view it as an avenue for exploration and growth, that is what it will be; whereas, if you view it as a prison or meaningless stage in your life, that is, unfortunately, what it will be, despite what others do to try and change that perspective”.

But how do students tend to feel about both required classes and even assignments for their favorite classes that they have no choice but to complete?

“If you like the class (even if it’s required), you want to do the work because you are interested in learning about it,” said sophomore Joey Knatterud. “But if you don’t like the class, then what motivates you is a grade, not your interest in it.”

But if students choose to be interested in a class they are taking, they will much likely find at least a part of it enjoyable.

“I believe that students, whose minds are open and willing, will eventually develop a passion for learning and education, despite not loving a subject or school in general,” said Balster.

INTRINSIC VS. EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are frequently referred to in the realm of education.

An intrinsically motivated person tends to learn because of their desires and curiosity, while an extrinsically motivated one might choose to work hard simply for an outside reward such as good grades or money.

“Intrinsic rewards in education refers to the love of learning,” Balster emphasized. “The mindset looks something like this: ‘I am going to learn this topic because this topic is valuable, because knowledge is valuable, and because learning and using my mind, body, and soul are ways in which I can be truly human.”

Intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset go hand in hand. If a student has a growth mindset they likely feel willingness to overcome obstacles for personal satisfaction and growth instead of simply getting the answer right without effort.

“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business,” stated Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard University.

But without a doubt, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have a key role in the success of students (and people in general) when they make large decisions (such as deciding what college to attend), and choose careers to devote themselves to.

Although students are ultimately responsible for finding their own passion for learning, teachers and the environment also hold power over this.

“This generation of kids is perhaps more curious, more passionate, more engaged, more justice-seeking because of the things you guys have experienced,” said Julie Winn, Minnehaha Academy’s Director of Teaching and Learning. “[But] now it’s like, ‘will anything be here in 20 years?’…And so as educators, we have to reinvent the way that we’re thinking about what education is. We’re trying to…develop the gifts and talents of our students [so that they are] able to go into the world and influence and communicate and create peace.”

Intrinsic motivation demands substantially more practice and honing of interests than extrinsic. But it can come in many forms.

A true passion for justice-seeking and political action might lead a student to independently research what they can do to create change, and even how they should share that
topic with others.

MAINTAINING PASSION

Little children are born curious.

They look up at the world around them and view it in a whirl of wonder and uncertainty. Questions spring from their mouths and they desire to know how the things they see work. But where does this curiosity go?

As children grow and become older they begin to ask fewer and fewer questions. They still look at the world and see plenty of things that they do not understand, but why do they stop asking about it?

Perhaps the answer is more complicated than it first appears. Children grow and are more frequently put in social situations.

They become conscious of others’ opinions and often make decisions to hide their passions in order to fit in and be a part of the crowd. Unfortunately this causes many problems for them as they grow.

“A few years ago…we surveyed Lower School students and [asked] ‘what does it take to be a good Minnehaha student?'” explained Dr. Winn. “And they all said: to try things, to take chances, to be kind…they had all of these answers that were very growth mindset and very optimistic.”

The responses from Upper School students were far less promising.

“As we moved up through middle school and high school, it gradually became: do what the teacher is asking you to do. Gather the points that you need to keep a good GPA. Don’t ask too many questions. Turn your assignments in on time.”

At a crucial decision-making point in their lives, students no longer feel that they have (or claim) autonomy over their education and future. They begin to desire extrinsic validation and good grades over their own passions and interests. Without balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, curiosity and creativity become nonexistent.

LIFELONG BENEFITS OF LEARNING

Success in education is not solely extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. It takes a balance of both for students
to be successful. This truth applies to more than just school. As teenagers reach adulthood and begin acquiring more serious jobs and other day-to-day requirements, it becomes clear that motivation is a balance between the basic desire for knowledge and a reward that comes with completing a task.

“Intrinsic motivation (learning for the sake of learning) is probably the most valuable life skill you could
ever learn in school,” said Balster. “If you leave my classroom with a love of learning, with or without the grade you wanted or needed, I would consider your job…a job well done.”

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