Encouraging students the right way: building the intrinsic motivations for lifelong success

Encouraging students the right way: building the intrinsic motivations for lifelong success

Matilda was one of my favorite books as a child, and I’ll always remember my amazement at the duplicity of Matilda’s dad, Mr. Wormwood, in using an electric drill to reverse the odometers to sell his used cars for more than they were actually worth.

Whether or not you’ve read Matilda, we can probably all agree that we disagree with these tactics because they’re dishonest and unscrupulous. Yet, now as an educator, I wonder more and more if we are creating a world in which the youth are forced to adopt these strategies for survival. In fact, are we shaping our kids the same way Mr. Wormwood is fixing his cars, imprudently emphasizing external factors instead of cultivating internal strength?

It is when I move away from the topics of test scores and awards that I truly begin to understand my students. Without this omnipresence that seems to subconsciously drive every aspect of their lives, I get to see what actually motivates them. I like to not ask them about how many points they’ve improved on the SAT since our last meeting, and instead ask about what has recently made them happy, angry, proud. They begin to speak about their love for beautiful literature, for their parents who work so hard, for the miracles they’ve just witnessed under a microscope. When they raise their voices excitedly, or try to blink away tears in their eyes, I rejoice, as strange as that sounds. I grasp these moments by the reins and encourage them to think about why it moves them, to help them connect what they love to what they can do in the real world. We build and reinforce that bridge with activities and knowledge that bring them closer to the other side; and hopefully, this pursuit becomes a habit and mindset that makes diligence worthwhile, because they are doing what they love. When we peel away the numbers on their resumes this way, we are left in a space with infinite possibilities for discovery and innovation. I think that’s how it should be.

Yet, when we send the message that numbers will measure their potential and intellect, it’s no wonder they see those digits as the prize. The 2400, 1st place, 99th percentile, Top 10 become everything they strive for and everything that fulfills them. We deprive them of the chance to build tenacity, to have a reason to keep fighting even if there is no trophy in sight, because external motivation is not only limited, it is limiting. By not fostering the habit of curiosity and the grit to work for their dreams, our kids will not have dreams bigger than to earn numbers that define them.

We need to do away with cranking back odometers and begin to invest in helping our kids develop a strength of purpose. Benchmarks and standards are necessary, yet they have taken too much of the spotlight and become the sole motivator for many kids, forcing them to abandon a love of learning even if it had existed in the first place. To be honest, it is easier to teach to the test and focus on attaining the numbers, because all it takes is drilling and practice, which does teach hard work in a sense. But what about the moral fiber and creativity that we are neglecting to build in our kids, which are necessary to be successful and happy in the real world? It takes much more dedication and creativity to teach students these same traits, because we have to model it ourselves.

The good news is that we have the power to do it, to enact change and to give our kids the type of education that will build them into the best people they can be, not just the highest achievers they can be. When we succeed in teaching and reassuring them to explore their interests, they will build a work ethic towards their dreams that will deliver many, many meaningful accomplishments. It starts with us, and I think it’s time we confiscated the electric drills from the Wormwoods of the world and take a lesson from Matilda’s creator Roald Dahl about the spirit of learning we want to pass on to our kids – “If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it.”

Drawing credit: Paul Callis, a special needs teacher in Oakland, CA. Follow his daily, whiteboard drawings on Instagram (@48birdo48)