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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