Student Motivation: Focusing on Excellence

Why aren't more students motivated and why haven't we figured out how to get them motivated? The problem with motivation is not necessarily an issue with students or even with teachers as some might think.
01/08/2015 03:48 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Student engagement and motivation are probably the greatest challenges that face formal education today. Ask any teacher and she will agree that motivated students are easier to teach, are more engaged, and experience higher levels of achievement. So, why aren't more students motivated and why haven't we figured out how to get them motivated?

The problem with motivation is not necessarily an issue with students or even with teachers as some might think. The problem is also not just about providing engaging or relevant lessons. We have been doing this for decades with little improvement in motivation, especially intrinsic motivation. One of the main problems is with not enhancing the students' strengths. Students will be engaged and motivated when they are doing something in which they possess talent and are passionate about. Intrinsic motivation occurs when talents, along with passion creates a purpose.

The main reason people, including students, fail to be motivated and to a greater extent maximize their potential is because too much focus is placed on improving weakness rather than developing our talents or strengths. A talent is a natural aptitude or skill. Strengths are the development of our talents. These can include creativity, achiever, relator, positivity, responsibility, and other strengths that may not be easily measured on a standardized test. Unfortunately, we tend not to focus on students natural abilities, which would inspire motivation, but instead focus on low test scores or low performance.

Even as adults, we are given teacher evaluations, performance reviews, or other feedback that focuses on our weaknesses. It is so common that we have even changed the terminology to be "areas of growth" rather than weaknesses, so as to make it easier to swallow, but the result is the same. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be aware of weaknesses, but if our focus is only on fixing weaknesses, then the best we can hope for is mediocrity .This attitude has been strongly influenced by pop culture. Just look around and you will see products that advertise to fix our "defects" such as weight loss products or health and beauty products. Do any of these products or ads focus on bettering who you already are or just changing to improve the weaknesses we have?

This mentality pervades our schools as well. Education is now about students meeting a minimal level on a standardized test. If a student doesn't meet the minimal level, that becomes the focus. Why is he not becoming even better at those subjects that he already excels in, building his confidence even more, and becoming even stronger in those subject areas? Think about it like this...we as adults enjoy activities that we do well and it also gives us a sense of accomplishment, or what is that other word... oh yeah, motivation!

What if Michael Jordan never developed his basketball talent? What if Pavarotti had decided to spend more time on calculus than singing? Every successful person has achieved their success or excellence by developing their talents and strengths, not by trying to develop their weaknesses. In fact, research by Gallup indicates that when adults are able to use their strengths in their careers, then they are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life.

By contrast, these studies also show when people work in jobs where their strengths aren't utilized, they are not emotionally engaged in their jobs. Sadly, two-thirds of respondents don't feel like their strengths are utilized in their jobs. This means two-thirds of adults are not fully engaged in their work, have lower productivity, and do not view themselves as having an excellent qual¬ity of life.

Why should we focus on developing the talents and strengths of our students? Imagine schools where students were six times more likely to be engaged and every student was motivated. Imagine how successful these students could become if they were able to focus on what they actually do well.

As we point out in our book, What Schools Don't Teach: 20 Ways to Help Students Excel in School and Life, there are many strategies that can be used to help students identify and develop their talents and strengths from elementary through high school. Formal education simply has to be willing to do what is in the best interests of our students. This is to stop focusing on weaknesses and develop their talents and strengths so they have every opportunity to excel in school and life.