Beyond Benchmarks and Scores: Reasserting the Role of Motivation and Interest in Children's Academic Achievement: An ACEI Position Paper

Article excerpt

Children at every age and stage can be surprisingly avid learners, such as the 5-yearold with encyclopedic knowledge about a favorite animal, the 10-year-old determined to advance to the next level of an electronic game, or the young adolescent who is a repository of information about popular musicians and their songs. In these informal situations, children pursue learning for its own sake with tremendous intensity, becoming so absorbed that time seems to pass by quickly, and learning is pursued for its own sake (Cambourne, 2002; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Ideally, all learners would be eager about and receptive to learning the things that adults consider to be important. Yet much of the time, teachers find themselves operating under a very different set of circumstances in which one or more children are disaffected, reluctant, or even resistant toward a particular learning task. When this occurs, teachers are confronted with one of the most persistent puzzles of practice: What are effective ways to motivate groups of children to achieve academically in classrooms?

There is little question that the fundamental purpose of education what the ancient Greeks referred to as the telos--is to promote student learning. For decades, both experts and the general public have agreed that any effort to improve the education system must focus squarely on optimizing student learning, motivating students to achieve, and furthering teacher professional development (Boyer, 1995; Darling-Hammond, 2006; Rose & Gallup, 2006). As clear and compelling as such goals may be, the route to attaining them is obscured by a dense fog of widely held misconceptions, conflicting expert opinion, and political agendas. What is disregarded in the frantic quest to attain higher test scores is that an emphasis on motivation, interest, and metacognition--the ability to analyze one's own learning needs and processes--make a collective and profound contribution to academic achievement. As Nel Noddings (2006) explains, "The most fundamental expectation of schooling is that students will learn. If we want them to use their minds well, it is reasonable to help them understand how their minds function, how and why they learn. What motivates us to learn? What habits are helpful? Why do I remember some things and forget so many others?" (p. 10).

This ACEI Position Paper is an effort to respond to each of these important questions as they apply both to learners and to teachers. It begins by redefining learning and challenging widely held assumptions about the role of motivation and interest in learning. Next, it focuses on incentives used to motivate learning, and finally, it offers research-based recommendations on how to build motivation and interest in learners. The evidence used as support emanates from an interdisciplinary review of research in neuroscience, motivation theory, psychology, educational psychology, and studies of effective teaching. The three main assertions of this ACEI Position Paper are that:

* Educational initiatives and approaches need to reflect a more sophisticated, research-based understanding of the learning process. * Children's learning is supported by task-related incentives, both intrinsic and extrinsic, that are responsive to the individual child, the domain of study, and the sociocultural context. * Effective teaching transcends merely imparting knowledge and relies, to a considerable extent, on educators' ability to motivate students to learn. Any characterization of learning that disregards the role of motivation and interest is shortsighted at best and destructive at worst.


Educators speak of learning all of the time, yet relatively little agreement exists about a basic definition, much less agreement about the process involved in enhancing learning. Look up the word "learning" in the glossary of a psychology book and the definition is apt to be some version of "a change in behavior. …