The Learning Style Approach to Motivation

by Victoria Kindle Hodson

We were interviewed for an article about how to “motivate” students to excel in their studies, which reminded us of how confusing this subject can be.

Have you ever strayed hopefully into the zone of “What would it take to get my child to get better grades?” Or, more dangerous yet, have you let your eagerness propel you into the zone of “What would it take for my child to get all ‘A’s’ on a report card?” If you are home schooling your children, you probably haven’t; however, we know that even home schoolers are concerned about motivating their children to read, to learn their math facts, to write more, to focus their attention more and better, to complete their assignments and on and on. Without a doubt, questions about how to motivate kids to learn more, faster top the list of most asked questions.

Traditionally, there are two sides to the motivation coin – the reward side and the punishment side, both of which we will talk about briefly. Based on our research and experience, we will introduce you to the Learning Style approach to motivation.

The Reward Side of Motivation

“What could be better than praise, awards, and being recognized for achievement at a special ceremony? Isn’t this what we all secretly aspire to?” the interviewer asked us.

In fact, these kinds of rewards can be used as motivators for short periods of time. Sometimes parents or teachers invent a clever incentive to enlist cooperation, and performance scores are bumped up for a short time. However, “reward inflation,” the demand to have a greater reward for the same amount of work, creeps in quickly, and the teachers or parents end up wishing that they had never been so motivated to motivate their students.

If you’ve ever tried paying your child $4 or $5 for each “A” on a report card you know what we’re talking about. Perhaps you noticed that in order to keep your child interested in his/her grades, the price of the “A” had to increase to $5 or $6 on the next report card and to $9 or $10 on the following report card. There is no end to this escalation.

The hidden truth about rewards is that they distract the focus from studying and learning to recognition and social status. Once children have received rewards for academic performance, fears of how it will look if they don’t get the award set in–the fear of being embarrassed, losing face, and being thought to be stupid. Therefore, rewards keep some students trying to “look like” successful students rather than being successful.

The Punishment Side of Motivation

Threats and punishments are negative motivators. When children aren’t doing as well as we think they should be doing, it can be satisfying to proclaim, “You’re grounded!” or “I’m taking away your television privileges.” In conflict situations what we usually want more than anything is relief from the intense emotions that are coming up, so we go for a quick fix and “lay down the law.” It isn’t long before regret sets in, before we realize that we sound just like the adults that we promised ourselves, when we were kids, we would never become.

The hidden truth about using punishment is that rather than learning the lesson you intended them to learn, children learn how to be sneakier and not get caught, spend more time than they otherwise would creating fantasies about how they can get even with you, become discouraged and stop working, or become hostile and stop working.

The Real Question

The fact is that kids have motivation in abundance. It is their nature to be motivated, especially about learning. “Learning is as natural as breathing,” as Barbara Given says in her book Learning Styles, A guide for Teachers and Parents, therefore, we are born motivated to learn.

The real question isn’t “How do we motivate our children to learn?” rather, “What did we do to take away their motivation to learn?” Rewarding and punishing children are two things that we do to stifle natural motivation. As Alfie Kohn says, in Punished by Rewards, “When we take away self-determination, we take away the motivation to learn.”

Notice that both reward and punishment are external approaches to motivation that make the worth of a child’s work depend upon a parent’s or a teacher’s evaluation of it. Using these external approaches we encourage students to do what we want them do, to become what we want them to become–or else they won’t get the reward. In fact, they are likely to get a punishment if they see things differently from us.

If you find yourself giving rewards, threats, or punishments, you can be sure that you are the one who is motivated to change something about your child. You can also be sure that using these strategies isn’t going to change your child’s learning behaviors in the way that you hope they will, but in the long run, will make your child less motivated than ever.

The Learning Style Approach

We recommend a three part internal approach to motivation, which is: 1) accentuate the positive by identifying your child’s learning style, 2) find out your child’s goals for the future, and 3) help your child build daily bridges to these goals, no matter how far away they seem. Not only will you give your child a new perspective about who he/she is, you will also open the doors of possibility, and unlock a natural motivation to learn.

Learning now becomes linked with milestones that the students choose to reach, steps that they want to take, commitments that they want to make. Since every child is curious and wants to participate in the learning process, let’s make sure that we are letting them start where they are in the process rather than where we think they “should” be. And, let’s allow them to proceed in a direction that has purpose and meaning for them rather than blindly and obediently going in the direction that we think they “should” go.

The Bottom Line

As always we encourage you to become your children’s best Learning-Success™ Coach. Coach your children/students in doing what they love and what comes easily and naturally to them—and watch what happens with their motivation!

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