How do you motivate kids to learn? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately as I try to entice my daughter to ‘enjoy’ learning Arabic. The problem began simple enough. She liked Arabic in KG1&KG2 but at the start of Grade 1, she had no clue what the Arabic teacher was saying. This completely turned her off of the language and suddenly she started asking to go to the nurse or the bathroom every day during Arabic.
Realizing there was a problem, we hired a tutor. Sadly this turned out to be a huge mistake. The tutor only taught by rote memorization and was incredibly boring (I nearly fell asleep listening to him one day as he taught her at the kitchen table). In two short months, he failed to teach her one single thing about Arabic except to hate it completely.
Rather than give up, we found another tutor and this one, thankfully, is a Montessori-trained teacher who engages our daughter with activities and games. She’s still not where she needs to be but at least she no longer hates Arabic lessons and some days even looks forward to them.
I realized after this episode that I needed to think more about how she learns and what motivates her to learn. She does well in school and loves art and books. But we also hope to enroll her for a music program in the summer and I don’t want another battle on my hands.Intrinsic vs external motivation Most teachers are probably familiar with the ideas of intrinsic vs external motivation.
I’m neither an academic nor a teacher and so I’m sure there is a more detailed, articulate definition available. But from what I gather external motivation, simply put, is reward-based. You encourage a child to learn his ABCs by offering rewards like chocolate or a trip to the zoo or even a star on a wall chart. Grades and ‘good job’ praise and school trophies are considered external motivators. They can work but they also create limits. Once the reward has been achieved or the praise received, there is no incentive for the child to continue the activity or learning.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is derived from an internal desire to participate in an activity simply for the pleasure of doing it. Children’s intrinsic motivation develops and changes over time. A baby, for instance, will learn to crawl or grasp at toys not for the ‘learning value’ or skill acquired or even the praise from parents but because they enjoy doing it.
As children get older, however, and they are exposed to external motivations, they may lose some of that intrinsic desire to learn. Intrinsic motivation also needs a constellation of factors. Children need to feel confident that they can do what they are trying to learn, even if its difficult at first. They also need to feel a sense of autonomy, that they are the ones driving the learning (not being forced by type A parents like myself), that they are encouraged and supported in their learning and being given opportunities for learning and necessary guidance. I
n a 2014 article in Psychology Today, author Gareth Sundem notes an additional factor that needs to be present or at least seems to have some direct effect in helping children develop intrinsic motivation. He discusses a research study conducted at Northwestern University where researchers focused on the question of ‘how to keep a child’s sustained interest in an otherwise boring task’ (like piano practice or conjugating Arabic verbs).
Causally rich information
The researchers found that offering causally rich information significantly improved the children’s engagement with an otherwise boring task. [You can read more about the study here]
Causally rich information can be anything that adds to the child’s understanding and comprehension of the thing to be learned. In our case, it would be information about the history of Arabic, maybe details about the different spoken Arabics (dialects) and even some funny words or phrases or rhymes in Arabic. I have a book of illustrated Arabic sayings and since she loves art, I thought I might try to teach her the sayings by letting her draw them.
My husband and I have a list of things we plan to teach our kids. Mixed in with basic lifeskills like cooking and our values are a handful of skills are also the notions of grit and determination. To me these seem like essential life skills that will help her when times are challenging. Like learning a language or playing the violin, however, they are learned through practice, practice, practice.
My goal now is to figure out how to help her enjoy the rehearsal.
References for further research
Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology 84, Pages 261-271.
Barrett, KC & Morgan, GA. (1995) http://www.education.com/reference/article/intrinsic-motivation-children-education/http://geekdad.com/2014/03/trick-a-child-into-violin
This article was originally published in Issue #27 of the Kuwait Moms Guide e-Newsletter.