Childrens’ beliefs about themselves, their environment, and what they need for success can influence their motivation. Recent research has attempted to lift the barriers to motivation and learning by challenging pupils’ unhelpful beliefs about their abilities and about what they think it takes to succeed.
According to the research, motivated pupils will seek challenges, self-regulate effectively and show resilience when they find something difficult. Motivation takes place throughout the school environment. Children bring to the classroom their beliefs about the school setting, beliefs about their own abilities, for example, beliefs about whether their abilities are fixed traits (fixed mindset) or malleable qualities that can be developed (growth mindset), and children may also have certain ideas about what it takes to be successful in school or in particular subjects.
Developing growth mindsets
A recent study by Park et al. (2016) found that children who believe that their intelligence is malleable outperform those with a fixed mindset. Further to this, the study also showed that the more emphasis teachers place on outcomes such as grades and test results, the more the children in that classroom endorse a fixed mindset. These findings have significant implications for practice. They show that classroom teachers play a key role in the development of childrens’ motivational frameworks and that motivational frameworks in turn predict childrens’ academic achievement. So, how can teachers support children to develop more productive mindsets?
- Think about setting achievable micro-goals to encourage pupils’ consistent learning and progress. Little victories can lead to a growth mindset and a boost in self-esteem!
- Praise the effort, the strategies, perseverance and information-seeking, with a particular emphasis on how the pupil’s effort contributes to their learning and progress. If a pupil is finding a task particularly tricky, appreciate their effort and support them in the problem-solving process. Sit with them and say, “Show me what you’ve tried, and let’s work out what you could try next” or “Tell me what your thinking was when you tried it this way, let’s see if there’s another way you could try”.
- Deliver classroom activities that involve co-operative work. Research suggests that pupils are more motivated when working in groups and will endeavor to try their best. Additionally, pupils will experience the positive loop of effort and success, encouraging the development of a growth mindset.
Changing childrens’ perceptions about what is needed for success
“When kids think Einstein is a genius who is different from everyone else, then they believe they will never measure up, […] many students don’t realize that all successes require a long journey with many failures along the way.”
– Lin-Siegler (2016)
Children may believe that success relies on an inherent talent or ability. This means that when pupils face difficulty they may give up, concluding that they lack the necessary skills and it’s not worth persevering or seeking help. Research from Lin-Siegler et al. (2016) examined the effect of challenging childrens’ beliefs that success in science requires exceptional talents. The children learnt about the challenges and setbacks faced by famous scientists such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie through stories that convey the message that even the most accomplished scientists often struggle. Lin-Siegler’s study shows that teaching children about the struggles as well as the successes of great scientists can actually improve their performance. The results suggest that pupils perform better when the relationship between effort and success is highlighted. This effect was more pronounced for low-performing pupils, suggesting that they may have felt more inspired by the message that even famous scientists struggled. Challenging childrens’ beliefs that learning requires exceptional talents or abilities offers a new approach to improving motivation in the classroom. The message that even some of the most successful people of our time experience failures prior to their achievements may help children interpret their difficulties as a normal part of the learning process rather than a reflection of their talent or inherent ability.
Park, D., Gunderson, E. A., Tsukayama, E., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2016). Young children’s motivational frameworks and math achievement: Relation to teacher-reported instructional practices, but not teacher theory of intelligence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 300–313.
Lin-Siegler, X., Ahn, J. N., Chen, J., Fang, F.-F. A., & Luna-Lucero, M. (2016). Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 314–328.