Thursday, November 14, 2013

8 Universal Secrets of Motivated Learners


Guest Post and Webinar by Kathleen Cushman, What Kids Can Do



When I interview teenagers about their lives and learning, I often think back on my own experience at 16 and 17. I hardly remember anything from my high school classes on the Army base where my family was stationed at the time. For me, the real learning began when the school bus dropped me off and I walked across the highway to the little print shop where I worked as an apprentice.

There I had something hard and interesting to do. I made a lot of beginner’s mistakes as I set type for wedding invitations, made rubber stamps, helped lay out a community newspaper. But the boss encouraged and believed in me, and I loved getting better at something that clearly mattered to people.

Decades later, I use every day what I learned back then about making ideas matter through media. At What Kids Can Do, we interview young people about what motivates them to work hard at 21st century challenges—and then we turn what they say into practical materials for educators.

What students have been telling us lately about motivation and mastery echoes so much of my teenage experience—and underlines what neuroscience reveals about the learning process.

Deceptively simple, their advice boils down to 8 universal secrets of powerful, personalized learning. Taken together, they give us a critical lens through which we can analyze what’s going wrong—and what’s going right—as we teach and as we learn.
  1. We feel OK. Creating well-being in a learning environment is the crucial first step, according to both kids and scientists. Threats to our physical or emotional safety—from hunger to humiliation—shut down learning as we respond to more primal signals.
  1. It matters. A personal connection or a real-world issue can make all the difference to whether we care about an academic task. Offering a choice on some aspect of the work also sends its value up, and so does the chance to work on things with friends. 
  1. It’s active. From constructing a model to collaborating on a puzzle, we start to “own” new information when our hands and minds engage our thinking processes more fully. 
  1. It stretches us. Extreme frustration can shut down learning, but a stretch that’s both challenging and achievable gives the learner a buzz of excitement. (Don’t forget to notice small successes along the way!)
  1. We have a coach. We do much better with someone around who will help us make sure we’re getting it right—watching us practice and giving us tips, with plenty of time to learn from our mistakes.
  1. We have to use it. Doing something with information not only shows that we know it but also makes it stick in our minds. The most fun is to perform what we’ve learned or teach it to others—but even a pop quiz will do the trick. 
  1. We think back on it. What did I learn? What would I do differently next time? How have I grown and changed? Making time for us to reflect on questions like these has a huge effect on deepening our learning—yet it’s the easiest thing to skip.
  1. We plan our next steps. Planning any venture—an argument, a project, even what we’re going to say next—is a creative adventure. It forces us to remember information in order to develop an idea or solve a problem. Hand us the keys to our learning and watch us take those intellectual risks! 


To see and hear—straight from students, teachers, and scientists—how these eight conditions play out in six highly motivating classrooms, check out The Motivation Equation, a new multimedia e-book readable free on your web browser or on the free Next Generation Press app.

Teachers tell me it clarifies and expands the sources of motivation and mastery — whether they’re teaching the Common Core or considering “anywhere, anytime” learning (like mine, so long ago).



I hope you’ll fill out the picture by writing me with your own perspective!






Kathleen Cushman has spent 25 years as an education journalist, with a particular interest in the adolescent years. In 2001, she cofounded with Barbara Cervone the nonprofit What Kids Can Do. There her interviews with youth nationwide have resulted in numerous books, including Fires in the Bathroom and Fires in the Mind as well as mixed-media productions such as the Just Listen series of video commentary by youth and the multi-media book The Motivation Equation, all of which were made possible by MetLife Foundation.