Nan Austin

What makes kids tune in, tackle the tough stuff?

I always thought of research on student motivation as sort of squishy science.

Sure, we all love that spunky go-getter, that standout studier who works hard, thinks out of the box and gets ahead. But that’s in the DNA or the upbringing, right?

What can a scientist tell us about motivation that a grade book can’t? Kid A has grit. Kids B and C have hope. Kids D and F, well, maybe one day a mentor will work a miracle. That’s just the way it is. Out of our hands. Nothing we can do.

Fresh from an Education Writers Association seminar on the topic, I stand corrected. Outside the comfort of conventional wisdom there lies better information, and very different conclusions.

After a decade devoted to studying how children learn, researchers from several disciplines are converging on why they learn.

“It’s the iceberg under the water,” as Camille Farrington from the University of Chicago put it. Because we know, she said, “at the end of the day, you can’t teach anybody anything they aren’t trying to learn.”

Why does a student who entered junior high planning on becoming a veterinarian start sophomore year convinced she will fail? Why are schools in low-income neighborhoods so tough to turn around? Why do so many kids who loved math in first grade hate it by fourth grade?

Some solid science is pointing to when kids tune out to school and what we can do about it.

“A lot of enthusiasm is coming from teachers for this work,” said Zoë Stemm-Calderon with the Raikes Foundation. “This (gap) is very felt in education.”

Take a toddler. Little folks love to explore, trying again and again until they accomplish a task. But by school age, much of that thrill of discovery and persistence to figure things out has gone.

“How do we make our students eager and effective learners again?” was the question posed by Carol Dweck of Stanford University. Dweck, author of “Mindset,” is the force behind the “growth mindset” research showing students who believe they can learn, can.

While that sounds like a truism, much of the workaday world sends students the message that they can’t. Forget berating adults or the snide comments of mean classmates – lots of things we all think of as being nice or helpful end up discouraging instead.

▪ Saying a child is smart for getting a good grade. Unintended message: Intelligence is fixed at birth, like green eyes.

▪ Doing the problem a student is stuck on for him. Unintended message: You need me to figure this out for you.

▪ Giving praise for effort without results. Unintended message: Never mind, we didn’t think you could do it.

To send a different message, from the cradle to the classroom, researchers say “smart” needs to be viewed for what it is, functional brain capacity that can stretch.

Challenges grow intelligence and mistakes make more neurons fire. It is a strange and counterintuitive thought that doing a thing wrong teaches more than doing it right, but brain scans show that is the case.

And strangest of all for a generation charged with helping all children feel good about themselves, praise is highly overrated. Apparently, never losing was not the answer.

Dweck’s research sorts student outlook into those who think they can figure things out, a growth mindset, and kids who believe that they can’t. The latter is a fixed mindset, where being smart or talented is something kids are born with, everyone else is just out of luck.

Of consequence for those looking at education equity issues, Dweck’s research has found that instilling a growth mindset has the greatest effect on the achievement of low-income students.

Fixed mindsets, moreover, tend to cluster in particular cultures and income levels, dragging down whole neighborhoods in a spiral that becomes tough to unwind. Intensifying the negative spirals are the stereotypes that tend to travel with and reinforce them.

For example, African American students given identical tests – one introduced as a test of intelligence, the other as a test of problem-solving skills – found students did significantly worse if they thought it was measuring how smart they were.

The test did not change; the mindset did. The study was noted in the publication “Motivation Matters: How New Research Can Help Teachers Boost Student Engagement ” by the Carnegie Foundation.

An expectation of failure is often embedded in biases so taken for granted no one questions them, notes a study published in the October American Educational Research Journal. The report looked at how teachers make sense of the flood of student data being sent their way in most districts.

What it found is teachers who characterized their students as “a low group” tended to take the test data as confirmation their students could not learn and got little use out of the information.

In other words, the district’s hope that data will help teachers home in on what each student needs hits a brick wall if students are seen as the problem, and that is a far more common view than most realize.

All of which suggests the study of student mindset and motivation holds a lot of promise, but also the promise of being a very difficult fix.