Closing the Motivation Gap

Now that the world’s knowledge is widely and freely available, why are we still so largely uneducated? Why are there still big employment skill gaps? Why is civic knowledge so low? Why is the wealth gap widening not shrinking?
Poverty and a lack of functional literacy are real barriers to learning. Access devices and broadband are issues–but the access divide is rapidly shrinking.
The big gap is what Marina Gorbis called the “motivational divide” –the gap between those who, as Tom Friedman said, “have the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online [resources] to create, collaborate, and learn” and those that don’t.
The fact that the best professors in the world are making their courses freely available is an important milestone in learning opportunity, but MOOCs are largely serving the college educated seeking additional education. They are super efficient at surfacing and developing talent. The winner of the data prize we ran last year was a college senior from Ecuador who had benefited from Andrew Ng’s machine learning course (the one that kicked off the MOOC revolution)–another sign that the transnational economy will go to the motivated.
The motivation to learn is largely a cultural issue and it’s unevenly distributed–particularly in America. On one end of the spectrum Tiger moms are stressing out their cubs with the race for selective colleges. On the other end, generational poverty has cut off entire communities from the ” growth mindset” that connect effort and life outcomes.
Children deserve the opportunity to feel and observe the benefits of learning. When I visited Mission Hill, Debbie Meier told me young people should have the opportunity to “spend time with adults they can imagine themselves becoming.”
The Cristo Rey network has a work study program that allows low income students to work one day each week in a professional work setting. The resulting sense of efficacy is evident from the minute students meet you at the front door–another indication of the importance of culture and application opportunities to cultivating a growth mindset.
The following 10 recommendations provide a good start at boosting student motivation.
State policy

1. Thoughtful standards that encourage thinking and application (Common Core is a good start) and expectations that include habits of success;
2. Assessment systems that promote learning rather than memorizing;
3. Competency-based policies that require students to show what they know and progress based on demonstrated mastery;
4. Universal preschool and full day kindergarten;
5. Strong accountability that actively intervenes in the communities without high quality options (e.g.,TN ASD, MI EAA, LA RSD);
6. Funding policies that match need and are flexible and portable;

Districts and Schools

7. Create high agency blended learning environments where students have some control over place, pace, and path;
8. Frame projects that explore real problems and career options;
9. Use game-based tools and strategies to boost motivation and persistence; and
10. Engage parents and community (try a community MOOC).

Grappling with generational poverty and changing community mindsets are daunting challenges. These societal changes are a heavy lift, but these 10 recommendations are a good place for EdLeaders to start.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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