Monday, October 26, 2015

A Look at Student Motivation

By Daniel LaSalle

Motivation matters. The Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights, Barack Obama campaigned to become president, and Frida Kahlo painted. These acts required drive and commitment. Motivation matters in school. Self-response questionnaires about perseverance are one of the most powerful predictors of academic success. High school GPA more accurately estimates future college success than any standardized test (including the SATs) precisely because high grades often favor effort, such as completing homework assignments and revising essays. While we see the powerful impacts of motivation, we know much less about what it is. This mysterious phenomenon empowers protests, scientific breakthroughs and every human achievement we have known. Here is a breakdown of what we know about motivation and how all the pieces fit together.

Motivation can be domain-general or domain-specific.

A domain is any area of knowledge. Perhaps it is highly academic, like poetry or mathematics. Perhaps it is physical, like playing football. It can be anything a person can eventually develop an expertise in, which is absolutely anything. Motivation can be restricted to a specific domain. Take the motivated musician who practices hours in a garage but cannot hold down a job. Motivation can be across multiple domains. Maybe the musician loves guitar, babysitting her little sister and chemistry.

This element of motivation exists on a spectrum, and it’s very unlikely we find anyone at either extreme. We would probably not see someone solely motivated in poetry unable to focus enough to eat, nor would we find someone who is equally fascinated by everything. See Diagram #1 below:

Motivation can be unconscious or conscious.

We can be aware (conscious) of our motivation or unaware (unconscious). A dedicated teacher could easily launch into an explanation of why he loves his job and how he invests in his craft.  His motivation as a teacher is conscious. This same teacher may struggle to maintain a long-term romantic relationship and be relatively clueless about why he continues to breakup with his partners. His romantic motivation is unconscious. Our awareness of our own motivation also exists on a spectrum. You can probably think of many decisions you could easily explain and many you cannot.  See Diagram #2 below:

Motivation is the result of an interaction of many differnt psychological process

The utility of making our X and Y axis consciousness and domain-specificity is that we can now make sense of very important psychological constructs in explaining motivation.  See Diagram #3 below:

Personality refers to a stable aspect of a person that does not change dramatically by context. You might describe your uncle’s personality as short-tempered specifically because you have seen him lose his cool multiple times across many different types of situations. It’s precisely these reoccurring behaviors that allow us to consciously describe a person outside of one particular context. As you might have inferred, it’s a very valuable thing that humans have this notion of personality. While I may never learn much about my mechanic’s upbringing, I’ll eventually conclude he is a trustworthy person by interpreting his interactions with me and other customers. Understanding a person’s personality provides one window into motivation. To look through this window, you must be conscious of their behaviors across multiple domains.

Disposition indicates someone’s inherent and inborn qualities. This is not to these things are fixed; it’s just our starting point. You may have a disposition toward anger during political conversations while your friend may have a disposition toward boredom in the same context.  Psychological research has identified half a dozen needs people may have in varying strength based on their disposition. Some have a strong affiliation need, so they have innate drives to be accepted by their community. Others have a strong power need and want to feel in control of situations. Disposition is unconscious since we do not have full awareness of the emotional needs that drive our decisions. It is also domain-general since it impacts all situations. Understanding disposition is another window into motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to a specific category of motivation when a person is more interested in the consequence that results from an act than the act itself. For example, if I do not care about understanding math but just want an A in the class, I’m extrinsically motivated. I’m interested in the consequence (grade) than the act (learning math). This motivation is very conscious because I’m very much aware I want the A. This motivation is also very context-specific. I may be extrinsically motivated to pay rent on time because I do not want my credit score to lower rather than any interest in the act of being a reliable tenant.

Intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation’s opposite. Intrinsic motivation is interest in the act without concern for the consequence. A student who is intrinsically motivated in biology class finds studying the living world exciting and enjoyable without the needs to attain praise or avoid detentions.

Understanding the components of motivation is the first step toward deciding how to promote motivation in school.  Is the student motivated across multiple school contexts, only one of them, or none? Is the student aware of his/her motivation or not? Is this motivation a product of personality or disposition? Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? Answering these questions allows educators, parents, administrators and even students themselves to adapt classroom and school structures that hinder or facilitate academic motivation.

Daniel LaSalle is a 9th grade teacher at Olney Charter High School. He also runs the blog You can follow him @teach2impassion on Twitter. For more on this topic, see his full article here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Intercambios de las Artes - Part of Our Bicultural Mission

By Steve Lanciano

Our bicultural mission sets some pretty lofty goals. Not only do we want to educate students who can read and write in Spanish and English, but we also want them to be able to operate in either culture. It is the latter which inspired me to initiate “Intercambios de las Artes.”

In December of 2014, I met with Dr. Claudia Salazar, the director of Instituto Caldas, a prestigious K-12 school in Bucaramanga, Colombia. My purpose was to explore how our schools could partner in the areas of language and the arts. Dr. Salazar was not interested in traditional “pen pal” programs because that kind of strategy was already fully implemented at Instituto Caldas. However, the idea of cultural exchanges through Skype generated huge interest. Before long, I had met the entire arts staff at Instituto Caldas and had a few projects in the works.

Our first “Intercambio” of the year was an introductory cultural exchange. Selected 8th graders from both schools made mini-presentations for the first part of the exchange.  When the formal presentations were over, Mr. Torres, our 7th/8th grade Spanish teacher did a great job getting the students to come out of their shells and ask questions that really matter to them (ex: “What is the cell phone policy at your school?”) Our second “Intercambio” was an exchange concert. Mrs. Pomales’ 4th grade homeroom played two American songs and the Caldas students played two Colombian songs.

Both Intercambios were highly elevating experiences which provided students authentic motivation to operate in another culture. Students used words like “wonderful” to describe the experience how many 4th graders have you ever heard use that word to describe a school activity?

Between the face-to-face meetings with Dr. Salazar and a subsequent Skype mini-conference for administrators, we established some long-range and short-range goals.  The long-range stuff was all pie-in-the-sky talk about international student teachers, student exchanges, etc. But, I was most excited about the cheap, short, manageable “Intercambios” because I knew they could be done in less than a year.

Now that we’ve begun to build trust between our schools, I believe the sky is the limit. We can begin to affect the lives of even more students in positive ways. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even host our very own delegation of Colombian students and teachers in the future. How’s that for bicultural?

Here is my favorite link:

Here is another link:

Steve Lanciano is Arts Coordinator for ASPIRA of PA Schools. Over his 8 years at with the organization, he developed the Corps Approach, wrote 27 funded DonorsChoose projects, and popped out 3 kids (with a little bit of help from his wife). He's also helped produce three Broadway-style musicals and won first place with his band at the 2014 Puerto Rican Day Parade in Philadelphia.