Do you believe that people can become smarter through learning or that intelligence is determined at birth? How we answer this question says a great deal about what we believe about motivation for learning.
This important belief system and its impact on motivation surfaced for me in the early 1980s when I was working with a group of seventh-grade students classified as "gifted." Some of these students were highly motivated to achieve, while others were less motivated and underachieving.
Among this latter group, the prevailing believe seemed to be that because they were "smart," they did not need to put forth an effort to learn at school. In contrast, their high-achieving peers seemed to understand that they needed to put forth an effort so that they could attain their potential and achieve desired results.
Teachers often tell stories about students who seem to overcome all odds to become high academic achievers. Teachers know the effort these students have put into learning to become top performers, and they often describe them as a "joy" to have in class. These students are hard workers, an attribute that effective teachers rightfully prize.
In our book, Sixty Strategies for Increasing Student Learning, Marcus Conyers and I cite research from Bernard Weiner, whose attribution theory denotes that people's perception of who is responsible for their accomplishments will determine their level of motivation for setting and achieving new goals.
In the classroom setting, when students believe they are responsible for their success, they are living to feel a sense of pride in accomplishment and confidence in their own abilities. This fuels continued efforts to achieve. On the other hand, those who attribute their success to someone else—such as "the teacher gave me an A"—are less likely to feel the pride and confidence that should result from the hard work required to excel academically.
However, teachers do play a role in helping students achieve by conveying the message that they believe in each individual student's ability to learn. Students who believe that effort accounts for success in school and in life will learn to do the necessary work to succeed at a given task, whereas students who believe that they have succeeded due to being gifted (or some thing else out of their sphere of control) are more likely to internalize that they don't need to put forth the necessary work to succeed.
Teachers we know have high expectations for all students and convey the message that success is the result of effort. Thank you to teachers for guiding students to reach more of their full potential.
Reference: Weiner, B. (2005) Motivation from an attributional perspective and the social psychology of perceived competence. In A. J. Elliott and C. S. Dweck (Eds.) Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 73-84). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
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