Making Self-Motivated Learners

About a week ago, I graduated from level one to level two in my Rosetta Stone software. Around the same time, I crossed off the last item on a list of blog posts I wanted to write for my personal blog and started a new sheet. I also finished a book that I had been meaning to read for some time and set up a meeting with a videographer friend to film a short intro for a side-project I’m working on.

I’m not bragging. I’m actually wondering out loud how I ended up this way: unable to relax unless I’m “taking care of business.” Why is it that I don’t feel like I can’t just enjoy a nap in the middle of the afternoon if there’s nothing essential going on?

There is probably a whole list of reasons, but I think the most profound and important one is that I was raised to be “a doer.” I was always encouraged (but not forced) to push myself and to achieve something. I didn’t feel pressured, as many “high-achievers” report feeling during their childhood. I just felt like my natural curiosity was helped along during the crucial developmental days of my youth.

How can we pass this kind of questing and productive spirit onto our children and our students? Here’s a short list of lessons that stand out to me from my up-bringing that I think might serve as a good base for that discussion:

1) Encourage curiosity. Kids ask a lot of inappropriate questions, and we don’t really stop as we get older. Instead, we just push the boundaries on what “appropriate questions” are. But if we discourage questioning from an early age then we will wind up with older students whose first impulse is to wait for instructions rather than seek them out. It might make our job as a parent or a teacher a little harder, but we need to work on helping kids find answers to their questions as often as possible.

2) Expose students to the joys of creating something. This is why I’m a big proponent of student portfolios. Students should learn the joy of doing a job well and that seeing a completed project shine can be a reward unto itself. I enjoy looking at an error-free and well-done piece of work, regardless of whether it’s a blog post or a new set of brake pads on my car. I think that’s a sort of base-level emotion that everyone can tap into if they are taught how.

3) Teach kids to take initiative. I remember my mother once telling me, “I shouldn’t always have to remind you to do your chores or tell you what to do.” After that, I started looking at the world differently. I recognized that I didn’t always have to wait for instructions. I could seek out my own path and follow it (as long as I took care of my chores first!). I’ve never been a procrastinator, and I often catch myself wondering how different the world would be if more people could say that.

4) Show kids that it’s okay to pursue their own interests. What do all those things that I listed in the first paragraph have in common? They’re all things that I chose to do. Some people might consider them unproductive wastes of time (I’m not getting paid for any of it), but I know that there is value in doing something purely for myself to satisfy my own curiosity. Everyone should feel that way. It doesn’t have to be profitable to be productive.

5) Help kids make connections. My elementary and middle schools had a few programs that allowed us to communicate with kids or adults outside of school, but not too many. Nowadays, the opportunities are endless. Allowing kids to follow their curiosity outside the walls of a school and connect with others around the world is a spectacular way to motivate them and encourage them to grow and develop.

I’m sure I’m missing quite a few other important ingredients to raising a generation of self-motivated and inquisitive kids. Any ideas?

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