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Minnesota education: Motivation matters

Although it understandably got lost amidst news of financial collapse on Wall Street, late last month in Minnesota two important proposals for improving public education were released. Gov. Tim Pawlenty introduced a set of strategies to strengthen teacher quality, while Democrats in the Legislature rolled out a new plan for funding schools. 

Those are worthy goals, and I hope our state leaders will work together to achieve both of them in the upcoming legislative session. But neither strategy will produce large gains in student achievement unless we add a third leg to the stool: increasing students’ motivation to learn. 

To borrow a concept from economics, strengthening teacher quality and reforming school finance will improve the supply side of our educational system, but neither effort will directly impact students’ demand for a rigorous education. Unless we also address that side of the equation, even if our other reforms succeed brilliantly, there won’t be enough students who want to buy the improved educational product we’ll be offering.

Two big changes in our schools and our society in recent years have brought about this need for new ways of instilling and increasing motivation. First, where we used to give students the option of choosing a fairly easy path through junior and senior high school, in the years ahead all of them will have to complete advanced subjects like Algebra II. Not surprisingly, students who are required to grapple with difficult academic material will approach the challenge with a different level of motivation from students who choose to do so. 

Many expect instant gratification
Second, many of the technological advances that have improved our lives in recent years — from playing sophisticated computer games to text messaging to searching on Google — have also led many young people to expect rapid results and instant gratification in everything they do. Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy ways to learn to write an effective essay, complete an important experiment or create a serious work of art.  

Across the nation, a number of interesting efforts are under way to address these two trends by taking a more intentional and systemic approach to motivation. One example is the Million Motivation Campaign in New York City, through which middle-school students are being given a free cell phone and the chance to earn minutes, music downloads and other rewards if they meet performance goals set by their schools.

Here in Minnesota, a partnership of secondary schools and postsecondary institutions has come together to design a new program called Ramp-Up to Readiness. Our effort leverages the fact that students from all racial and income groups say they want to go on to college, but that they often don’t know the steps that will enable them to reach that goal. Ramp-Up to Readiness maps out the “college knowledge” that students need to understand and act upon at each point in their progress through junior and senior high, and provides them with new forms of mentoring and support along the way. 

Two keys to success
Whatever approach schools take to the task of increasing motivation, the keys are to connect the effort to something that really matters to students, and to help them make incremental progress toward that goal over an extended period of time. It’s because athletic coaches do both of those things very well that they are some of the best motivators in our high schools today. 

Everyone who has been a teacher or a student knows that extraordinary things happen when motivated learners meet great teachers and great ideas. But even though it’s magic when it happens, it doesn’t happen by magic. We need to make matters of motivation a major focus of our efforts to strengthen education in Minnesota in the coming legislative session and beyond.  

Kent Pekel is the executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Grimm on 10/11/2008 - 10:37 pm.

    I appreciate your article and efforts Mr. Pekel.

    I would add, motivation usually begins with positive relationships. Kids need to know that people care about them and their future.

    The ever increasing test craze and larger class sizes makes it hard to work “increasing student motivation” into the curriculum of many high schools.

    Maybe that is were programs like your come in. 😉

  2. Submitted by Vonya Ereye on 10/13/2008 - 09:29 pm.

    Well, for once, the discussion about education doesn’t come down to more money. I think it’s pretty clear that even parents of school kids are more interested in getting more education for our dollars rather than more dollars for our education.

    You are on to something here with increased quality and motivation. However, motivation is not a government program.

    The teachers union has one job and they work very hard at doing it well, to protect their members and maximize benefits for them. Unfortunately quality teaching goes out the window. The teachers will not be able to increase quality until #1, schools are allowed to identify and incentivize quality teachers and #2, they can get rid of the mentality that kids have all the rights and teachers do not. This undermines teachers ability to discipline, command respect and attention and be effective at their profession. Teacher quality will go up substantially simply by giving them the right to run their classroom the way they see fit, even if it involves legal disciplinary action.

    Also, motivation comes from within. External motivational programs do not last. Helping the kids see and feel the consequences of their action and involvement will provide them useful tools that will allow them to make more informed choices, with emotions that mean something to them.
    Do they understand what happens statically do kids that don’t finish school? Do teachers have an opportunity to get to know each students dreams and encourage them to set goals to achieve them. Do teachers clearly lay out their expectations to students and their parents and have a plan to hold them accountable?

    These things are the things that will improve quality and motivation. Guess what, just like most of the good things in life, they are free.

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