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Measuring the Light in Their Eyes:
Motivation Science in K-12 Schools
There is a well-worn aphorism that goes, 'Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters'.
Would it matter if we could measure the light in the eyes of a child who wonders at the miraculous sprouting of a seed or has discovered the joy of singing in harmony?
Would it matter if we could measure the light in the eyes of a teenager discovering beauty in a mathematical idea or goodness in helping an elderly friend with household chores?
My perspective on education has always encompassed a larger systems view, so
early on when parents would ask me for advice on choosing schools I had only unsatisfactory platitudes or overly complicated analyses to offer.
But I have settled on one piece of advice that captures the essence of all my decades of critical thinking on the topic.
It was a piece of advice that I learned from a parent:
Gauge the success of the school your child is attending by the light in his/her eyes.
If the light begins to dim, investigate what's going on.
If it goes out, figure out how to make substantial changes.
Do everything you can to keep the light in their eyes shining bright.
So as far as I am concerned, the most important measure of successful education is that light in a child's eyes.
That aphorism about measurement is sometimes used to dismiss certain types of assessments as fatally flawed for not capturing essential characteristics of an important system we are
In parts of the K-12 education world there is a line of criticism of the mainstream that claims the testing, standards, and related accountability schemes that dominate current discussions are incapable of measuring the most essential characteristic of getting a true education.
That most essential characteristic is passionate engagement with meaningful challenges which is just a less poetic way of describing the light in their eyes.
Either the accountability schemes kill the passion directly or the passion fails to register on the measure and is put at risk of being murdered by the punishing consequences of not making adequate progress on the less relevant paths that the measure does register.
As a researcher and advocate for K-12 education I have heard the litany of complaints from students, parents, teachers, and other school staff: teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, inequitable testing
formats/languages/scoring, inadequate time for anything but testing and test preparation, rampant boredom, bureaucratic nonsense, tragic poverty, fast tracking kids from diagnosis to drugs, etc.
I have also heard the media drone on about how schools are failing too many children and that they should be held accountable for the results our society expects them to produce.
All sides have important concerns, but there is a deeper issue that confounds everyone's efforts to make productive changes.
We do not have an empirically grounded and widely respected causal model for education.
There is an implicit and intuitively obvious model that is widely used to guide most people's thinking, but it has been widely criticized and largely rejected by scholars, education professionals, and educated and thoughtful parents.
That model is a whole suite of ideas that has been characterized as the
"banking" model by Paulo Friere and I call it the "delivery" model in my work.
There are probably other labels for it, but the key characteristic is that the fundamental premise is that education primarily consists of depositing or delivering content into students' heads.
One of the key criticisms of the model is that it suggests that the student can be a passive recipient while the teacher is implied to be the active agent in a discrete transaction or set of transactions.
This bears no resemblance to the understanding that psychologists, neuroscientists, and others who study learning arrive at from their research.
The active role that the learner must play in learning is one of the main points of departure. A minor point is that learning does not require teaching, when 'teaching' is interpreted to be a role that would require a person or some other form of intelligently responsive
agent to fulfill.
Scientists would insist that learning requires an environment in which the learner can explore, but the immediate environment does not have to include other intelligent beings for learning to occur.
The intuitive "delivery" model does not make any meaningful reference to the environment in which the learner is situated, except that there is a teacher. And we are left to imagine what qualities the teacher possesses or in what ways the teacher will act.
This sloppy default mental model is a recipe for chronic misunderstanding and enabling human cognitive biases to skew the decisions that guide the system.
It is no wonder that K-12 education politics are mired in partisan ideological posturing with little to show for vast quantities of money thrown into deep pits of pet theories for improvement.
Consider another system that suffered from the same destructive dynamics before a proper causal
model was tested and articulated.
The system of medical practice was in similar chaos in the mid-1800's.
The practitioners were doing their best, but the system as a whole provided disappointing results.
It was not until the late 1800's that germ theory emerged to displace the dominant (and wrong) miasma theory.
By the mid-1800's clear evidence was in place and logical arguments had been worked out, but the dominant mental model of miasma continued to hold sway for most of a century before being effectively marginalized.
Because miasma theory is an intuitive model it still exists, but the policies and other behavioral guidance systems that shape medicine and public health reject it so thoroughly that it is kept at bay where it matters most.
Key policy changes and infrastructure investments starting in the late 1850's, which effectively created the field of public health, were the first productive
implementations of germ theory (even though it was not fully articulated in its current form until later).
I propose to you that education is in a similar position today as medicine was in the mid-1800's.
Specifically, we have the right kind of empirical data to make changes to policy that can serve as leverage points for productive changes that are consistent with the science of learning.
The system as a whole may not be able to change yet, but with the right protections for the innovations that are consistent with the empirical data, we can lay the groundwork that will give the system a basis for a smoother transition when the time comes.
There are logical arguments and clear evidence that the delivery/banking concept of education is harmful.
But there is not yet a properly articulated theory to replace it.
Fortunately, we don't need a fully articulated theory to
take corrective action, we just need to take actions that make sense with what we know now based on the most basic evidence we have available.
What I consider the most basic evidence starts with what we know about human needs.
It is obvious that air, water, food, shelter, and sleep are primary human needs.
Scientific study confirms that these particular needs are, indeed, primary.
In order to earn the designation "primary," a need must be universal to all humans, have non-neutral effects on well-being, and not be derived from any other needs.
There have been many other candidate needs, but only three others have made it into the elite primary category.
Before I mention them, I want you to take a moment to appreciate how important primary needs are.
Notice that thwarting any one of the first four needs leads to death.
When the need for sleep is thwarted it has severe consequences
for mental well-being and leads to dysfunction. The other three primary needs are for competence, autonomy, and relatedness (also known as belonging).
Thwarting them leads to diminishment of mental well-being in the form of more anxiety, depression, and other signs of psychological distress.
One line of clear evidence of the harm of the delivery model of education is that, in the mainstream schools studied to date over the course of about 30 years, all of them show declines in intrinsic motivation and engagement.
The reason those declines constitute harm is that the way that you get intrinsic motivation and engagement is by supporting those three primary psychological needs.
Other potential explanations for the declines have been tested and rejected, so these declines indicate the thwarting of the psychological needs.
These data suggest that schools have a habit of turning out the lights in children's eyes. To be fair,
they do not turn out all the lights, just enough that, when the students are studied as a population, the overall trend is a decline.
In recent studies that use what is called a person-centered approach instead of the usual population approach to studying patterns of motivation, scientists are finding that some students do maintain their motivation in traditional schools, so the picture is not entirely bleak.
Starting in 2009, population studies showing maintenance of intrinsic motivation and engagement began to be published providing evidence that a different school-wide pattern can be produced in schools.
My own research showing patterns of maintenance of intrinsic motivation in two alternative schools was published in 2013 in the journal Other Education.
My research is part of a necessary existence proof for schools that can keep the light on in all or most of their students' eyes.
That evidence shows that there are
at least three models for schooling that keep the flame alive.
Considering that relatively few studies of patterns of motivation have been done and that only a few distinct models of schooling have been included in those studies (where all the schools with a declining pattern are assumed to be "mainstream" for lack of further description), then in a country with over 132,000 schools there are almost certainly a greater variety of schools and/or school models that maintain motivation.
We just don't have the evidence yet.
The primary needs evidence does not give us a full blown theory of education, but it does give us the beginning of an empirically supported causal model for education that we can use to make important policy decisions in K-12 education.
While we cannot yet make claims about how the end result of an educated person is caused, we can make clear and testable claims about the foundations upon which that
education must have been built.
We know that learners who master a given field of study had to have actively engaged with the subject matter and that engagement had to be supported by the satisfaction of the student's primary human needs.
The engagement had to be sufficiently intense for the student to
- activate their naïve mental maps of the field,
- discover discrepancies between the expectations that logically follow from their mental maps and the results of the actions they took based on those expectations, and
- revise their mental maps of the field in order to generate a combination of more accurate expectations and successful actions.
This is what we know so far with a high degree of confidence based on the science of learning.
In order to articulate a full theory that could inform all the different aspects of education there are a variety of details to be filled in.
But for now we have a crucial starting point.
We know that there is a gap in the foundations the mainstream K-12 schools provide for their students.
They are not providing adequate support for the primary psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Fortunately, this is not an inherently expensive gap to fill.
As an inexpensive and immediate stop gap teachers can follow the behavioral guidelines scientists have developed in their studies of the needs and how they contribute to motivation.
I teach a workshop called Motivation Hacks: Tips and Tricks For Teachers and Leaders; the workshop handout includes those guidelines presented in a simple format and is available on my web site: https://www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com/intrinsic-motivation-research.html.
A more strategic approach is for schools, districts, and departments of education to adopt a policy that
specifically recognizes that, based on the best available science, the primary needs are a necessary foundation for education.
In my book, Every Parent's Dilemma: Why Do We Ignore Schools That Nurture Children? I present a policy with that acknowledgment; this policy also requires the implementation of a scientifically validated school climate instrument that includes measures of the primary psychological needs.
The Hope Survey is an example of such an instrument that has already been developed, validated, and is regularly used in some K-12 schools.
'Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters'.
I don't know if the first half of that statement is true for education.
Now that we have measures that can give us insight into intrinsic motivation and engagement, I do not know if there is anything more that is essential, yet remains
If the light in their eyes is but a reflection of intrinsic motivation and engagement, then we may have the most important measure in hand already.
I do know that most of what is normally measured in schools currently does not matter until we know whether or not the needs of the students whose performance is being measured have been supported.
As international education scholar Yong Zhao who studied early reading programs pointed out in his testimony before the Oregon Senate Committee on Education on February 10th, 2015, it does no good for a child to get a good reading score if they learn to hate reading for the rest of their life.
I concede that the current measures may provide us with some valuable information, but the results of any academic measures should not be taken as valid until we can confidently say that we have accounted for the integrity of the foundation of the learning that we are scrutinizing.
And we cannot account for
the integrity of the foundations unless we directly measure primary need satisfaction or indirectly measure it by looking at patterns of intrinsic motivation or engagement.
The light in their eyes is what matters, so it's time we measured it.