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Implications for education
Q: What is the connection between emotion and motivation?
So, there they sat in Karen's office—one disaffected eighth-grader (Molly), her mother and father, her five teachers, her advisor, and the assistant head of school (Karen). Nine adults, nine talking heads all making suggestions, cajoling, pleading, and painting different pictures of the child's future. For an hour, they invented strategies for Molly, offering deals and rewards for behavior that would result in her succeeding in classes that meant nothing to her.
You could tell by looking at Molly that she was bored, annoyed, and defeated, impatient to be elsewhere. She slouched into the sofa, glaring through a veil of blonde hair at the floor. "God," Karen thought, "all these earnest adults doing all this work for this child." And that, of course, was the problem. The adults had the plans and the strategies. What did Molly have? What was her investment in all this? "Molly," Karen said abruptly, "what do you want to do? What do you think the problem is?" Molly looked up, startled, stunned even. She was accustomed to adults talking at her, making plans for her. "Huh?" she grunted, mouth agape, a suggestion of a sneer of incredulity etched into her lips.
School for so many kids is like a tsunami —something that just happens to them. (top)
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They become passive victims of its power. Teachers droning, bells ringing, chairs scraping, humanity swirling through halls and buffeted from room to room, weighted down with backpacks and expectations, drowning. Too few students experience education as something over which they exercise any meaningful control or that has anything to do with their interests or needs. School is boring or even worse. Yet, if we listen carefully to their voices, we can hear echoes of the lessons that neuroscience teaches us. Like Ian's voice. He, too, hated high school, and saw it as "the state-imposed mandatory four-year sentence. I was waiting for school to end so I could start the real learning and work I wanted to do in my life."
Then he made a life-changing choice. He enrolled in an alternative program that freed him from the usual high school requirements and let him study and make films. He spent part of his day away from school at a nearby studio, where he enrolled in film and video classes with adults. For the first time, he felt the excitement of being in a classroom "where everyone was there because they wanted to be."
Ian experienced school as Molly never did, despite all the effort adults made on her behalf. "My program," said Ian, "put 'the system' much more in the student's control. If you failed, you had no one to blame but yourself. All of a sudden, there weren't just dreams or ideas or theories; there were real projects, real deadlines, and real consequences that meant much more to me than getting a low grade on a test."
Teachers know these things about learning. They know that Molly and Ian represent the extremes of a spectrum of meaningful engagement, and they struggle heroically to shepherd their students toward Ian's experience. Neuroscience can help. Perhaps guided by new ways of understanding learning, we can design more learner-friendly schools and experiences for more of our students. Perhaps we can help our students engage in school by encouraging them to take control of their own learning.