Watching a bit of the US Open last night, I was struck with the question of the source of motivation by athletes to work without cease, endure pain, sustain focus, and intensify commitment to a sport over time even when the odds of losing are far greater than standing on the podium to receive a trophy. And, in tennis, close doesn’t buy much in terms of rewards. I also am reading Why Children Succeed by Paul Tough and am reflecting deeply on the empirical research he reports that building curiosity, resilience, and relational skills offers children a far greater chance at success in life than our current almost singular preoccupation with academic success. His work pushes against the fixed mindset that nurturing intellectual capability and cognitive skills should be the most important focus for learning in homes and schools.
Anyone who pursues learning with passion and intensity – whether it’s improvement of tennis serve placement or how to write poetry – sustains commitment to practice, to try out new improvement strategies, and to add new tools to their learning tool belt. We all know people who seem to have a level of resilience when it comes to a pursuit of passion. They often work in the state of flow as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but they also persevere when their work becomes more difficult and success an elusive target, as author Laura Catherine Brown noted at the release of her debut novel.
“I write in my journal every day even when I don’t feel like writing. It’s like practicing scales.”
Over the last two years in the summer, I’ve watched young people pursue learning passions through a variety of pathways atypical of what their learning may be like in the regular school year. Male learners with risk factors had fun together as they worked long hours becoming algebra experts, creating marble roller coasters to experiment with relationships among slope, kinetic energy, and laws of motion. I’ve had the chance to observe teen writers spend a 14-hour day simply writing for the joy of writing. In another space, the energy of beginning and advanced jazz band enthusiasts propelled them through a week of hard practice from a cacophony of disconnected notes into passionate improvisation of the Monk, culminating with a lunchtime performance on stage at our local concert pavilion.
For several weeks in another space outside of school proper, young leaders from all walks of life engaged in long and heated daylong discussions as they pushed themselves to consider leadership through the lenses of revolutionaries, entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians whose work they studied. And in lieu of traditional elementary summer interventions, young elementary makers worked together to design, create, engineer, and build using tools that most of us would never have envisioned in an elementary setting.
As I watched young children, adolescents, and teens working together in summer programs (including those who bring with them chronic stress associated with familial risk factors). I witnessed what happens when pursuit of learning in authentic, natural settings ignites passion. Young people attend, they engage, they learn from each other, and they don’t want to stop working.
It’s the sweet spot that comes with how humanity has learned best for millennia, through play, storytelling, movement, creation, performance, authentic problem-solving, and purposeful projects. We are incorporating what we’ve learned from these and other “test-bed” settings and innovation zones across all of our district’s schools with the idea that transforming, not reforming, contemporary learning environments creates pathways for our learners that are vastly different from those of 20th century factory schools. In doing so, we move from a Gutenberg teaching model of write, print, read, listen, and recall to a post-Gutenberg learning model of search, connect, communicate, and make.
Motivation isn’t about what adults do to attempt to make a young person learn, but about what learners find within themselves when they pursue learning through its most authentic, interesting possibilities. The best work we do as educators offers opportunities for learners to choose learning pathways, and to make possible any pathway chosen by a young person. We do our best work, not through an expectation of compliance, but rather when we set up situations through which young people experience curiosity, choice, fun, joy, passion, and challenge. When this happens over and over again, learners work without cease, persevere despite the possibility of failure, rise to challenges, sustain focus, and intensify commitment.
This happens when motivation comes from inside the soul. While many think learning is about carrots and sticks, it never has been really.