Catch 22: Love of Learning vs. Getting the Grade

By Kevin Bushweller — March 19, 2007 2 min read
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Guest contributor Ann Bradley, an assistant managing editor here at Education Week, often talks about the trials and tribulations of motivating her children to do well in school. This past weekend, she witnessed the poignancy of what really motivates kids.

Here’s Ann’s story:

“My 12-year-old son spent the weekend working on a project for his 7th grade Spanish class. They’re studying the names of school-related items, like staplers and pencils, and they have to make a locker and fill it with 10 things, all correctly labeled. They also have to write numerous sentences explaining what is in the locker and what class it’s used for.

My son, who desperately wants to do well in school but is still learning that effort equals outcome, was thrilled to get this creative assignment and determined to do his best. He spent hours turning a Nike box into a miniature locker. He spray-painted it blue, made a lock out of tin foil, and filled it with a tiny bulletin board (made by ripping a corner off the one in his room) complete with a tiny note written in Spanish stuck on with a pushpin. He even got our 5-year-old in on the act, who lent him a tiny SpongeBob backpack to hang in the locker.

At one point, he said to me, “Mom, this is so good, it looks like a girl did it!”

I guess that means only girls fuss over their schoolwork, while cool guys pretend that they have more important things, like lacrosse and whether to buzz their heads, to think about!

When I checked the assignment rubric for the project, my heart sank. Turns out the actual locker is worth only 10 points, and the rest of the 70 points will be earned with clear and complete sentences that use the right verb, etc.

Being a Type A Mom, of course, I couldn’t help but point out to my son that all of his labors would only yield 10 points, and that he’d better get cracking on his sentences. It was awful to have to “shut down” his creative energies that way, although I do understand that this is a language class, not an art class.

But still, the whole experience left me feeling sad that my son, who attends one of the finest middle schools in the nation, has so few assignments that jazz him up the way the locker has. He was so motivated to make it, and the assignment gave him the opportunity to exercise a little-used part of himself--even at the risk of producing something that a girl could have done.”

Does this story sound familiar? What lessons do think this offers about what motivates kids?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.