This is the second post on Student-Focused Learning in Springdale, Arkansas. Read the first post here.
I find it exhilarating when what I hear from people in the field brings to life what I have read in research and know from experience to be true. This sense is especially powerful when the insights come from learners.
I recently spent some time with a group of high school students at the Don Tyson School of Innovation (DTSOI) in Springdale, Arkansas, querying them about their experiences and what makes their learning lives at DTSOI stand out. I received an earful and it was great. It was especially powerful since so much of what I heard is highly consistent with what research tells us about motivation, the role of purpose in learning, and the importance of taking ownership for the direction of our lives.
As educators, we can spend a good portion of our time looking for ways and trying out strategies to motivate learners. We know that motivation is the entry point to stimulate and support engagement in learning. Without motivation, not much learning happens. Yet, as I listened to what these learners were describing about their learning and the environment at DTSOI, I kept wondering if we too often approach this challenge from the wrong direction. One of the young men captured this insight succinctly, “I now understand that I cannot wait for someone to motivate me. I need to be responsible for motivating myself.” What a powerful understanding about life and success! This student’s observation begs the question of whether we should be spending less of our time trying to motivate students and more time focusing on developing the ability and inclination of students to be the source of their own motivation. We know that the ability to self-motivate is a key life skill, but how can we build this capacity in learners? More about that later.
While I was absorbing the significance of helping learners build the capacity to motivate themselves, another student followed with an equally powerful observation. She noted, “At DTSOI, almost everything we do has a purpose. Whether it is what we are learning in class, participating in an internship, or listening to people talk about the real world, there is a purpose behind it.” Again, a powerful insight about success in life. The more we see the purpose in what we do, the more likely we are to focus on and persist in achieving what we set out to do. If we can help students to seek and see purpose in their learning, their success is likely to grow. If we can help them to transfer a sense of purpose to their lives, we give them a gift that can last a lifetime. Again, more about this later.
Yet another student observed that what makes learning at DTSOI unique is that students actively participate in planning their own learning paths. He noted that students, with their parents, have planning conferences with school staff. They set goals, decide the direction they want to pursue, and then select and create options and opportunities to form the learning path. Once the path has been created, learners still have regular opportunities to make adjustments and add experiences and elements that combine formal learning in school and community college with less formal, application-based learning in the community. It was clear from the discussion that students found this aspect of their learning very powerful.
So, what do we know from research about learning that parallels and reinforces the experiences these students shared? It turns out there is plenty.
Of course, building motivation, developing a sense of purpose, and building a path to achieve our goals require a process. In early stages of learning, we often need to provide a stimulus to kick start motivation. Learners need guidance to understand and tap into the power of having a purpose. And they need expertise to help them build a path that can take them where we want to go. The observations offered by students at DTSOI are consistent with much of what we know from research. Consider that Daniel Pink’s 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is based on the power of purpose, mastery, and autonomy as near universal motivators, regardless of age or circumstance. Self-determination theory taps similar elements and adds a sense of connectedness. We have long understood that intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than trying to stimulate attention through external rewards and threats. We know that giving learners meaningful choices and allowing students to learn from the consequences of their choices can offer powerful learning lessons. Giving students an authentic voice in an environment of safety and respect builds confidence and commitment. Coaching learners to reflect and learn from experience can give them a skill that will position them for success regardless of their chosen path.
Success in life has a lot to do with motivation, sense of purpose, and clear direction. If we can help students understand the importance of and take ownership for their motivation and learning, we open a world of possibilities, including unlimited opportunities they create for themselves.
Another implication regarding motivation was raised in my conversation with these Arkansas learners. Many states and school districts are trying to find an answer to persistent loss of engagement as students approach the end of their high school careers. Often referred to as “senior slide” and the “lost senior year,” this phenomenon has students marking time until graduation. As a consequence, the learning momentum more likely to be present early in high school wanes and students drift toward the minimum work required.
Many solutions have been tried by high schools to fix the problem, such as shortening high school to three years and increasing requirements so that students must stay focused to graduate. However, I cannot help but wonder whether DTSOI has already found an answer for their students that is worth replicating elsewhere. Discussions and planning for life beyond high school start as students enter DTSOI as eighth graders and build with each semester as students and families meet with school staff to plan learning paths, identify learning experiences, and continually review career options and aspirations. These commitments and plans are integrated throughout the courses students take, the choices they make, and the exposure and experiences they have with professionals, employers, and mentors. Remarkably, students appear to grow in their engagement with and commitment to learning as they progress through high school, often gaining experience and credentials in areas of career aspiration well before approaching graduation. The answer to preventing the lost senior year may be in making the experience more meaningful and purposeful and giving students more ownership for their learning, not in trading time away. The Don Tyson School of Innovation is still early in its life and is growing its way into the senior year for its learners. I have a sense that senior acceleration is a more likely prospect than a senior slide.
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James Rickabaugh is the Senior Advisor of the Institute @ CESA #1, an education innovation lab located within the Cooperative Educational Education Agency that serves 45 school districts in Southeastern Wisconsin. James has more than thirty years of experience in educational leadership and education related organizations. He has been honored as Superintendent of the Year in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.