Student Motivation Is a National Crisis…
and NO ONE Is Talking About It!
Student motivation is a national crisis! Across every boundary: gender, racial, geographic, academic, and socioeconomic… students simply don’t care.
Everyone knows our education system is in turmoil. It’s critically disconnected from the real-world. People attempt to improve education with STEM or STEAM programs. Or, they try to build “critical thinking skills.” But no one is talking about the root of the problem…
We have a MOTIVATION CRISIS! Our country suffers from a severe lack of motivation! Across every boundary: gender, racial, geographic, academic, and socioeconomic… students simply don’t care.
Student Motivation Is a National Crisis!
Even students who get “straight As” are not motivated to learn. They are only motivated to please people with good grades.
“At the start of this term, one professor asked what we wanted to get out of his class. Everyone said, ‘A four-point!’ Nobody really cared if we learned anything. We’re just ‘playing the game’ to get our degree and get on with our life.”
– Jessie Smude, Michigan State University Senior, 2015
If students don’t care, they don’t learn. Priscilla Vail, author of Smart Kids with School Problems explains it best.“Emotions are the ‘on/off’ switch to learning.”
Motivation doesn’t happen by forcing students to care. (Have YOU ever been forced to care about something?) Confidence doesn’t happen by forcing students to “just do it.”
Motivation happens when students can make their own choices. It happens when students understand the useful reasons for learning new content. It happens when students can make connections to things they already understand. It happens when students are not bogged down by fear. It emerges when students feel safe to make an effort and get feedback… on what works and what doesn’t.
In other words, motivation does not begin with the student. It begins with the environment where students are expected to learn.
That means, “motivation” begins with us – the educators.
Motivation Is Biologically REQUIRED for Learning!
As soon as we stop expecting students to artificially manufacture motivation, we will make unprecedented gains in education! We’re investing billions of dollars into reform efforts, such as STEM and “critical thinking programs.”
But, as long as we ignore human development, we’re only investing in futility!
When we embrace the biology of learning, however, we stop fighting uphill battles. We stop fighting gravity. Instead, we pick up momentum and our students soar!
The Brain Biology of Motivation & Learning
In the picture below, place your index finger on the spinal cord. Start at the bottom of the image. Now, trace the spinal cord up until it reaches the brain. This is the path all information follows along your spinal cord. The first section of the brain to receive information is the “emotional center.”
This is why emotions are the “on/off” switch to learning. The very first region of the brain to process information is the emotional center.
If the brain perceives a “threat” of any kind, it immediately goes into “ALERT! DANGER!” mode. This mode pulls brain chemicals from other regions of the brain. Its senses are heightened for additional threats. Region 2 manages executive function skills. Region 3 manages learning. When the emotional center of the brain hoards the chemicals needed to power thinking, other sections of the brain suffer.
When the brain perceives a threat of any kind, learning becomes physically impossible. The brain “steals” power from the learning regions of the brain. This design goes back to caveman days when we might encounter a tiger in the wild.
Who could possibly think about learning theorems when a Tiger is trying to eat you?! Today, this region of the brain still does not know the difference between:“Tiger!” And, “Someone just said something really mean to me on my way to class.”
Both situations are threats. A tiger threatens our most basic physical survival. “Mean words” threaten our sense of belonging. “Belonging” is deeply important to our survival as a human, social species.
Our education system completely ignores this core brain function; It is physically impossible to learn if the emotional region of the brain is not feeling “safe, happy, and content.”
As you might imagine, our brains error on the side of caution out of self-preservation. Any sense of discomfort will put the brain in “ALERT! DANGER!” mode.
So, if a student feels…
- like their teacher doesn’t like them,
- uncomfortable around a peer or peers,
- upset over something at home,
- anxious about an upcoming test,
- sad, depressed, stressed, or down for any reason,
- disengaged or bored,
…the emotional center of the brain will hoard all of the brain chemicals needed for learning.
No amount of “education reform” will be successful if we do not embrace this critical aspect of brain function.
Emotions truly are the on/off switch to learning!
Susan Kruger Winter, M.Ed.
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