School & District Management Opinion

Closing the Motivation Gap

By Tom Vander Ark — December 09, 2013 2 min read
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Now that the world’s knowledge is widely and freely available, why are we still so largely uneducated? Why are there still big employment skill gaps? Why
is civic knowledge so low? Why is the wealth gap widening not shrinking?

Poverty and a lack of functional literacy are real barriers to learning. Access devices and broadband are issues--but the access divide is rapidly

The big gap is what Marina Gorbis called the “motivational divide” - who, as Tom Friedman said, “has the
self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online [resources] to create, collaborate, and learn.”

The fact that the best professors in the world are making their courses freely available is an important milestone in learning opportunity, but MOOCs are
largely serving the college educated seeking additional education. They are super efficient at surfacing and developing talent. The winner of the data
prize we ran last year was a college senior from Ecuador who had benefited from
Andrew Ng’s machine learning course (the one that kicked off the MOOC revolution)--another sign that the transnational economy will go to the motivated.

The motivation to learn is largely a cultural issue and it’s unevenly distributed--particularly in America. On one end of the spectrum Tiger moms are
stressing out their cubs with the race for selective colleges. On the other end, generational poverty has cut off entire communities from the " growth mindset” that connect effort and life outcomes.

Children deserve the opportunity to feel and observe the benefits of learning. When I visited Mission Hill, Debbie Meier told me young people should have
the opportunity to “spend time with adults they can imagine themselves becoming.”

The Cristo Rey network has a work study program that allows low income students to work one day each week in
a professional work setting. The resulting sense of efficacy is evident from the minute students meet you at the front door--another indication of the
importance of culture and application opportunities to cultivating a growth mindset.

The following 10 recommendations provide a good start at boosting student motivation.

State policy

1. Thoughtful standards that encourage thinking and application (Common Core is a good start) and expectations
that include habits of success;

2. Assessment systems that promote learning rather than memorizing;

3. Competency-based policies that require students to show what they know and progress
based on demonstrated mastery;

4. Universal preschool and full day kindergarten;

5. Strong accountability that actively intervenes in the communities without high quality options (e.g., TN ASD, MI EAA, LA RSD);

6. Funding policies that match need and are flexible
and portable;

Districts and Schools

7. Create high agency blended learning environments
where students have some control over place, pace, and path;

8. Frame projects that explore real problems and career options;

9. Use game-based tools and strategies to boost motivation and
persistence; and

10. Engage parents and community (try a community MOOC).

Grappling with generational poverty and changing community mindsets are daunting challenges. These societal changes are a heavy lift, but these 10
recommendations are a good place for EdLeaders to start.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.