Had I known the first post I made about AGS was literally on the heels of a local publication, I would have waited! However, it appears to be perfectly timed with my thoughts on a topic I am quite familiar with: youth motivation.
Here is the full Arkansas Tech News article. I will also refer to it as a qualitative evidence feature of this post.
Before I examine the article, here are some interesting points about the science of youth motivation, specifically growth mindset and positive youth development in academic contexts.
- Research on youth motivation under this umbrella is not in fashion now, but has been in the academy since the early 1980s. Some of the first papers on this topic were by Carole Ames and Carol Dweck (author of Mindset). Dweck and Ames have been writing about this topic for many years, and it is a testament to their tenacity and direction that much of what we know now began as basic research.
- The area of research concerns primarily academic motivation, but this motivation can extend to non-academic and extracurricular contexts. The research on this area is relatively newer, and typically involves examining the effect of contexts such as 4-H, sport programs, and interventions for at-risk youth. Positive youth development work by Rich Lerner and Peter Benson has brought about an explosion of literature on youth leadership characteristics. However, what these scholars are saying started from some simple observations of schools looking for student leadership.
- The two areas of PYD and growth mindset research, combining forces, have shown simple, but non-intuitive, motivators in child and adolescent development.
- Youth are motivated more by mastery (challenge of the process) than by ego (challenge of performing better than others).
- Youth are motivated by process praise (That’s a great piece of art!) rather than person praise (You’re so smart!).
- Mastery motivation does not necessarily mean proficiency – it typically means effort sustained for long and difficult tasks.
- Mastery motivation does not mean always highly motivated, but rather it deals more with qualities like tenacity, grit, and persistence.
- Motivation is a function of the person and the context. Dweck’s early work, in which children were given an impossible puzzle, has identified that some children are more inclined to be mastery-focused than others, some more “fixed” than others. However, it is unreasonable to put it all on the child, or to expect a child with low resources in their school to be “gritty” about their education. Provided basic needs are met, Dweck’s later work has shown in conjunction with other labs, a child’s mastery orientation and growth mindset is a skill which can be taught, and a skill which can interact with their “fluid” intelligence.
- As children reach adolescence, they need to build motivation along several assets. PYD researchers call this the “5 Cs”, which are competence, confidence, character, compassion, and contribution (sometimes the Cs are interchangeable). The “assets” of motivation are indeed more efficacious when instilled at a programmatic level. This is a lesson learned in terms of applied research on youth development. Many of the early programs that went into effect in the 90s (Just Say No, Dare) were ineffective because instead of cultivating assets of motivation, they were about problem-finding and deviance reduction.
- PYD can be used in all contexts, but is very helpful where resources are lacking. So, the combination of a PYD program with growth mindset cannot lead students astray.
- These points seem obvious, but it is important to remember that there are many approaches in schools which do not use empirically-based methods of increasing motivation in students, or some that are poorly adapted to the school context. Not all programs are “out of the box” ready. They must be adapted to fit a culture and the logistics of a place.
Evidence from AGS Students
So, here is the evidence, as excerpted from the Arkansas Tech News article, that AGS works toward the goal of instilling mastery and PYD. From this year, these quotes embody the ideas outlined:
“It’s all about the manifestation of the curious side of yourself that you sometimes don’t get to express at school because of the restrictions that are put on you for grades and what not.”
This quote first of all acknowledges a goal, which is a structure that can guide a student’s learning from the get-go. Then, it moves on to the very-real pressure that grades can dissuade curiosity. A caveat: The absence of grades at AGS limits generalizability, but what is also unlikely that schools can instill growth mindset in students with conflicting messages from external standards. Dweck referred to this problem as the “pseudo growth mindset effect” – just saying growth mindset things is not going to result in motivation if the structural barriers are still present.
“It’s really stressful to have to worry about always being your best,” […] “Here, you can know nothing and still come and learn something without that pressure. It’s a lot easier for me because I like to learn. I loved coming and learning more deeply about something I love.”
As I mentioned, the quote above suggests a mastery/growth mindset does not always mean a high level of motivation. Motivation of a mastery orientation depends on level and quality.
“Surrounding myself with everyone (at AGS) has shown me my leadership potential,” […] “What I learned here is going to change the way approach the future. I’ve become a lot more confident in myself academically. It makes me strive to want to learn more. It’s for your own personal growth. Everyone in the class wants to learn, and that makes me want to learn more. When everyone is engaged, it makes me want to engage more. (AGS) changed my life.”
Positive youth contexts do not happen immediately, but take time to develop. The perception of a context as supportive depends on a climate where youth feel their opinions matter, they are respected, and feel a sense of autonomy to choose their path. Autonomy becomes increasingly important as youth transition to adolescence and beyond.
” […] It’s such a confidence booster that you keep wanting to participate and work with it. I’d rather sit in a room for an hour and 30 minutes talking about these topics as opposed to sitting down and writing out of a book. We are all individuals and have our unique personalities. All of us learn differently, and that’s what AGS works with. It attunes to all learning styles. I feel like being here has taught me more about what I’m actually interested in.”
This final quote I like, because while it is idealistic in nature, it is not wrong. How we structure the classroom can either provide a platform for learning via motivational mechanisms or it can thwart it via motivational mechanisms. The diversity of learning is met by the teacher and students acknowledging differences exist, and then working collaboratively to ensure that all types of students are present from the introverted listener to the extroverted talker. From my side as a teacher, it is a constant balance of looking at what is effective in terms of evidence in practice with what is useful to the many diverse students in my class. It requires thinking about every little thing in your class with intention.
Whether AGS is always doing these best practices with reference to scholarship in motivation is up for discussion. Nonetheless, I witnessed AGS is effective as a tradition in Arkansas, because of the perceived value going in; a perceived value that has been instilled for over 30 years. I think that this program needs more research on its own practices to continue ensuring success, but also to drill down into why the program meets the students’ needs, the students come to bring their best, and the interaction between the two factors.
Below, I have included talks by two of the researchers I mentioned, Carol Dweck and Peter Benson.