Here's a question we don't think about often enough. "What motivates students to be engaged at school?" The answers to this vary dramatically and have a huge impact on each and every student.
Let's start with the obvious line of answers. "everyone goes to school," or "everyone needs an education in this day and age". Though there is a certain amount of truth to these cliched responses I would posit two thoughts. First, though yes, most jobs do now require at least a high school education or the equivalent, there are ever increasing ways to achieve "the equivalent" without spending days in the traditional bricks and mortar secondary school. Second, and most importantly, if one of these "'cuz everyone does it" type of responses is the best reason a young person can present for going to school, it's no wonder these same kids do not engage and simply do school because school is the done thing.
Senior students often invoke the "I have to do well at school in order to get into university" mantra when asked about reasons for attending and doing well. This can be a genuine motivational factor, especially around here where the familial and social expectation is academic and career success. But again, is this the answer we really want when we pose that question? Doing well simply to get to the next level is fine when playing video games, but it hardly seems inspirational as an educational goal for a secondary school student.
There are myriad other reasons students give for attending school, all of them valid. As with any question around motivation, answers to this question can be divided into two categories: intrinsic reasons for attending school and extrinsic reasons. By now many people will have read Dan Pink's book Drive or at least viewed the related TED Talk, so most people understand that extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are not equal. Intrinsic motivators have a profoundly greater effect on engagement, it's through intrinsic interests that people achieve great things, including great learning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this phenomenon of total intrinsic engagement in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The ideal class would have every student engaged in productive, stimulating and interesting work 100% of the time. Of course that's purely an ideal, but ideals can act as guides and though I believe that with the BCEdplan we're headed in the right direction here in British Columbia, there are many education systems which still rely too heavily, and to an increasing degree, on extrinsic motivators to entice kids to engage in school.
Prevalent assessment practices are probably the most obvious example of how we rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators. As long as we evaluate more than we assess and as long as we provide grades more often than we provide feedback, student motivation will come from the collection of this "currency" that we call marks. Those richest in this currency will be afforded the best opportunities come the end of high school...an unfortunate but true fact of life as things stand. We've all run across the students who are "mark sharks" these are the kids who focus solely on their grades, often to the detriment of true learning. But they're simply the ones who have truly taken to heart our message that good grades, as opposed to quality learning, are the primary goal of our systems.
There are also more subtle ways in which our current paradigms hinder the incubation of intrinsic motivation. Whether it's being forced to teach to standardized tests or being bound by overly prescriptive curricula, teachers are often restricted in what they do in the classroom. Prescribing curricular content any more than absolutely necessary robs teachers, and students, of the freedom to choose material that truly engages and inspires them. Rather than demanding that teachers "cover" material, to be of much relevance for the future our goals must be focused around higher order thinking outcomes, leaving as much of the choice of course material as possible to the teachers, and the students to decide for themselves. This will facilitate far greater engagement and hence far greater intrinsic motivation amongst students.
Lack of motivation is the reason that any of us quit anything, school is no exception. Extrinsic motivation is far preferable to no motivation at all, we've all needed it to get us through one thing or another. But extrinsic motivators don't get student truly engaged in their learning. They make school analogous to a job...it's something that has to be done. If we want our systems to be as strong as they can possibly be we need to talk about and explicitly foster an intrinsic motivation in each of our students. Only students who are intrinsically motivated to be engaged in school will end up truly challenged, enriched, energized and ultimately fulfilled by their experience. Yes it's an ideal, but it's worth keeping in mind.