by Tinka Rogic
Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” illustrates how the traditional school system undermines children’s imagination. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, our school system not only kills children’s creativity but also takes its toll on their motivation. The poll shows that 45% of students in grade levels 5–12 are disengaged at school, with motivation decreasing as they ascend through the grades. The poll also shows that nearly 70% of K–12 teachers are not engaged in their work. In addition, long-range studies demonstrate that a student’s motivation is a better predictor of later success than his or her IQ. These alarming findings inspired Perkins+Will to dedicate our February SPARK event to the topic of student motivation.
To look at this subject from different perspectives, SPARK Education invited four panelists—Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools and chair of the California Democrats for Education Reform; Isabelle Brocas, co-director of the Los Angeles Behavioral Economics Lab at USC; A.J. Webster, founding educator of Catalyst Education; and Viktor Venson, founder of No Right Brain Left Behind—from diverse educational fields. The panelists exchanged ideas and shared inspiring stories around the central question, “How can we create an environment where students want to succeed?” Before an eclectic audience of more than a hundred people from schools and school districts, the educational technology field, non-profit organizations, and design and architecture firms, the panelists explained why student and teacher motivation is declining, and discussed the role that teachers, new technologies, and the physical environment can play in engaging students.
The panelists were first asked why schools face challenges with motivation. They agreed that connecting what is learned at school with the students’ interests and “real life” would go a long way toward successfully engaging students. According to Viktor Venson, schools have moved from being portals to the world to being among the most disconnected places. Along the same lines, Isabelle Brocas emphasized the need to supplement the “what” and “how” of learning with the more important question of “why” in capturing students’ interest.
Throughout the discussion, Steve Barr humorously suggested that stepping into the shoes of a 15-year old boy—whose attention is the hardest to sustain—holds the key to understanding engagement. His promise to himself to never forget how it is to be 15 years old has formed the basis of his work in school reform.
Asserting that “the policies we put in place are serving another master besides getting students motivated and excited about what they are doing,” A.J. Webster argued that we know how to motivate students, but that the willingness to implement what we know is lacking. He contended that fostering motivation is generally not a priority in most education policies, for which going through a large amount of content seems more important than engagement.
The panelists frequently highlighted the significance of teachers in student motivation. Barr’s challenge to the audience—”Name a great school that does not have great teachers”—stressed the importance of attracting and keeping the best teachers by including them in decision making and by providing desirable work conditions. He also pointed out the need to elevate the general level of the teaching profession. Venson underlined this by adding that teachers’ and students’ passions are equally as important in nurturing engagement in the classroom. Concerning the role of technology in education, he said, “Technology is never a substitute for a good teacher.”
Not surprisingly, the speakers agreed that new classroom technologies have the potential to support teaching and learning and to allow teachers to become mentors rather than lecturers. New technologies, however, can also be a waste of resources if not employed effectively. Webster illustrated the danger of using new technologies “the old way,” describing how placing a worksheet on an Ipad would most likely neither enrich learning nor make the content more engaging for students.
Brocas felt that switching between tools and types of learning is crucial to sustaining concentration. She explained that the brains of children and teenagers are not made for the level of prolonged attention required to follow a teacher’s lecture. Alternating between listening to the teacher and active learning in groups, or interchanging between lectures and other media, such as tablets, lets children’s brains switch on and off, allowing improved engagement.
Offering a variety of tools and learning styles to the students, as well as including teachers other than the classroom teacher in a child’s learning, was found highly beneficial. Brocas stated that children more readily learn from other children, while Venson highlighted the value that outside mentors can bring to students and teachers. Asking “what STEM teacher would not like to work on a project with NASA JPL” he described how professionals from outside the educational field can bring enrichment and real-life connection to education.
Brocas emphasized how cross-disciplinary learning can show students the interconnectedness of school subjects and highlight their relevance and applicability in multiple professions. Webster added that cross-disciplinary learning fosters collaboration, allows multiple entry points to subjects, and provides the potential to reach a larger number of children with diverse interests.
To better understand the motivational challenges schools face and the abundance of ideas to enhance learning, Barr suggested that we study schools that outperform others with limited resources, and model other schools after them.
As a nod to the architects and designers in the audience, the panel concluded the discussion by considering the importance of the physical environment for student motivation. “We have to be thoughtful and critical about the kind of spaces that we create,” noted Webster. “Let’s create spaces that reinforce flexibility, that reinforce production rather than consumption, that reinforce movement and play.” Describing how the improvement of the physical environment contributed to the turnaround of Locke High School, formerly one of the state’s poorest-performing high schools, Barr likewise acknowledged the significance of physical space. His vivid portrayal of the transformation of the campus—including an entertaining depiction of Cameron Diaz’s generous donation of olive trees—was one of the evening’s highlights. At Locke High School, the physical surroundings, though secondary in the grander scheme of things, became an expression of how the school’s leaders felt about their students and teachers; the campus became a manifestation of their respect for the learning environment, and as a result was part of the positive change.
The panelists made it clear, however, that it’s not buildings or programs that make the biggest difference; it’s the people. Ultimately, it is motivated teachers, inspiring mentors, and engaged peers who have the greatest potential to improve student motivation. The panelists felt strongly that students need to be connected on a personal level to develop a love for learning. In addition to connecting to teachers, mentors, and other students, they need to see the relationship between learning, their own passions, and “real life” to understand the relevance of what they are learning. One of several students in the audience echoed the panel’s sentiment: “What motivates me? Following my interests.”
Intrinsic motivation—doing things for their own sake—is strongly tied to creativity. This implies that if we care about creativity at schools, we need to concern ourselves with the question of motivation. People are most creative when they are motivated by their passions. Once schools figure out how to connect the curriculum to teachers’ and students’ passions, creativity, and motivation will both thrive.