Motivating Kids to Learn

November/December 2002

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Dean of the School of Education Deborah Stipek recently finished gathering data for a study of achievement and motivation among 400 low-income kids in California, Vermont and Pennsylvania. Her latest book for parents, Motivated Minds: Raising Children Who Love Learning (Henry Holt and Co., 2001), co-authored with journalist Kathy Seal, follows a previous volume addressed to teachers, Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 4th ed., 2002).

Stanford: We hear a lot today about teaching to the test. Are you concerned about this?

President Bush’s recent “no child left behind” education legislation is going to make it a federally mandated requirement that every state has to test every kid. There are real consequences to how students score on literacy and math, so what do you think is going to happen to social studies, science and the arts—and everything else that goes into producing a well-rounded person? Accountability is important, but the tests will have the effect of narrowing the curriculum and promoting an instructional program that is focused on performance on multiple-choice tests, rather than real learning.

The number of Advanced Placement tests for high school students is also increasing?

The number has increased substantially. And to the degree that a student’s success or a school’s reputation is based on passing the test, it’s going to drive the instructional programs. There are teachers who purposefully resist that and say, ‘We’re here to enjoy world history, and that’s what the course is about,’ but that’s a very hard path to take, and it takes a very courageous teacher to [do it].

So what is happening to learning?

A theme that runs through all of my work and my parenting is the notion that we undermine the love and excitement and enthusiasm for learning that children are born with. We have all kinds of cultural policies, practices, norms and beliefs that almost guarantee that by adolescence it’s a rare child who sees that learning can be fun.

What do your studies of motivation in elementary school children tell you?

If you ask kindergartners how smart they are, they rate themselves very highly, and they’re hard to discourage—it’s amazing how robust their optimism and enthusiasm are. But by third grade, kids have kind of figured out where they are on the continuum, and just as disconcerting is the fact that they’re quite comfortable evaluating themselves as smart or dumb on a very narrow dimension. Developmental research over the last 20 years has demonstrated again and again a decline in children’s motivation to learn.

Are you discouraged by that?

No. What makes me optimistic and energizes me to work harder for school reform is observing children in different contexts. You can see a seventh-grader move from one classroom to another and go from being a passive, tuned-out kid to being an eager, enthusiastic learner who can’t be suppressed. So the decline is not inevitable. Teachers can do something about it, and parents can do something about it.

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