Practice makes perfect – so why are so many middle school students more intent on honing their video game reflexes this summer than their math skills? Research suggests that academic motivation tends to decline in American schools as students reach middle school – a quandary for educators, given the links between intrinsic motivation, practice, and achievement (for a practical take on this subject, see David Brooks’ recent New York Times op-ed, “Genius: The Modern View”). Teaching students to delay gratification is critical to this effort – making the development of self-regulation a hot topic in early education. While educators have struggled to determine whether or not instructional strategies can successfully teach children to internalize intrinsic motivation prior to middle school, evidence suggests that focusing on effort rather than ability (‘you’re working hard’ vs. ‘you’re good at this’) is an especially beneficial practice. Other voices have called for parents and educators to explicitly teach children about the malleability of intelligence and the relationship between practice and achievement.
These are complicated issues. As we are all aware, motivation varies by context, culture, and personal predilection: a student intrinsically motivated to finish a Harry Potter novel may simultaneously rely on extrinsic motivation (conveniently enhanced by threat of a pop quiz) to finish Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators (grades, social pressure) begin to break down in middle school, making the development of internal drive all the more valuable. Think this might be an interesting topic for light summer reading? Richard Nisbett’s new book, Intelligence and How to Get It, offers a thought-provoking discussion of the sources of individual variation in student motivation.