Teenagers and Motivation by Ben Snyder, Head of Upper School
As teachers and parents we are often faced with the challenge of how to get our students and children to "work harder," "care more" or "get stronger" (or a million other ways in which we, as adults, think they can improve). All of us undoubtedly want what is best for the teenagers in our lives. We often find ourselves knowing what our student/child needs to do, yet being continually frustrated by the recalcitrant nature of our kids.
Our challenge as educators and parents is to find the key to what motivates young people – and if there were a simple formula for that it would surely be common knowledge. There has, however, been significant research done in recent years around motivation. Daniel Pink (author of one of my favorite books, A Whole New Mind) has recently published Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and there are many lessons to be learned from his work in our interactions with adolescents. (For an engaging summary of the book, click here to watch an eight-minute YouTube clip.)
First, Pink’s research has shown that giving people autonomy increases productivity and performance. With adolescents, this increasingly means giving them independence around their work (How many times have your children asked you to stop bugging them about their homework?). Although our parental intentions are good, our children often see us as meddling. If students run into challenges with a particular subject at school, we want them to become autonomous (with support from their advisors) in how they respond to that challenge by initiating extra help from teachers, rewriting papers or tests when allowed to by teachers, or being more conscientious about homework. While there appears to be an increase in the number of students who are receiving tutoring help, we see this as a "measure of last resort" when the actions of the student have not led to results that they – students – feel good about.
Second, Pink believes that the desire to become better at something that matters can produce mastery within whatever domain someone feels important. This requires a mindset that through effort one can become better at something. At Nobles we try to present these kinds of opportunities across the breadth of our program – academic and otherwise. Helping kids find that place where one seeks mastery (be it with a fascinating research project, an all-consuming role in a play, or a unique responsibility on a team) is one of our most important tasks as adults.
Finally, a sense of purpose is vital in our ability to lead fulfilling and productive lives. Our mission insists that we consider ways to use our Nobles experiences to benefit the larger public good; but that sense of purpose and meaning can be achieved in infinite ways depending upon the interests and strengths of the individual.
So as you work with your children to consider responses to the whole variety of challenges that adolescence presents, see if you can help them take greater responsibility for their performance, develop a mindset that understands that hard work can lead to mastery, and always keep in mind that, in the long run, there is a higher purpose that we can use our education for.