Intrinsic Motivation

On Tuesday, September 29, 2015, the entire Upper School gathered in the Phillips Gym to celebrate the academic accomplishments of the School’s top students. In her opening remarks, Head of Upper School Laura Ross discussed the role of intrinsic motivation in student success. Read below to read her address in its entirety.

Good afternoon and welcome to parents, grandparents, students, teachers and friends. Today we take time to recognize students who achieved an average of a 3.5 or above for the 2014-2015 school year. We will also recognize seniors who have distinguished themselves from their performance on the PSAT last fall.

Every year, as I prepare to write this speech, I spend time thinking about what it takes to succeed in schools like Greenhill. When I talk to my peers at schools like ours around the country, what we always discuss is ways we can work to try to instill intrinsic motivation in our students, and ways to help them manage the stress that can come from high expectations. Every Head of Upper School I’ve spoken to recently has talked about the impact of stress on their communities. National statistics show that these concerns carry over onto college campuses as these students transition to the next level from communities like ours. As a student said to me recently, “I love to learn in my classes, but I wish that the grades I get didn’t matter so much.”

I think that if this generation of students in high school had a collective motto, it would probably be something like the quote I just read. We have really amazingly smart, creative and talented kids, and they love to learn. However, they are growing up in an era, unfortunately, where students feel like every move they make has consequences – every extracurricular choice, every quiz, every community service commitment. If you are following the national media you all know that this conversation is a very hot topic right now with great conversation spurred by books like Julie Lythcott-Haims’s “How to Raise an Adult” and William Deresiewicz’s ‘Excellent Sheep.”

So what’s the answer? What are the best ways for schools like ours to help mitigate the effects of this sort of pressure on our kids? In education articles and blogs, there’s lots of discussion about making sure our classrooms allow for real thinking and exploration of ideas given all the external pressure on kids. We just got the results of our yearly HSSSE survey – the High School Survey of Student Engagement. They highlighted places where Greenhill outperformed other independent and public high schools in certain areas. The three top areas they recognized were that our students feel like Greenhill “emphasizes analyzing ideas in depth, asks them to think about the “why” in all situations, and engages in discussing ideas in class that have no easy answers.

Seeing this made me really happy. I want our students to be in classrooms where they get to remember why they love to learn. I want them in classrooms where ideas are discussed in ways that lead to reflection and growth. I want them to have opportunities to discover areas of interest and ways to give back in the world they are about to enter, and not to just see their time here at Greenhill as a means to an end. Another way to help students relieve some of the stress is for them to be able to have outlets for their creativity and love of healthy competition, which is why we are committed to the participation of our students in the arts and athletics. I know from my own experience as a member of my high school choir and our varsity soccer team that there were many days where I felt anxious or stressed and how when I left soccer practice or choir rehearsal I felt as if a weight had been lifted because I had access to joy and camaraderie and lightness of spirit because of those activities.

These kids behind me have excelled in the classroom and given of themselves across this campus. They throw themselves into their lives with grit and resilience and positive attitudes. I really believe that the most successful students have learned the real benefits of Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset. In a 2012 interview about her work Dr. Dweck characterized mindset as the following: “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

This growth mindset is connected to the concept of intrinsic motivation, which I referenced at the beginning of this speech. The entire Greenhill faculty read a great book this summer by an author named David Streight who runs the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education. He defines intrinsic motivation as when “actions are performed for the pure joy of it. The experience of spending time with things we’re intrinsically motivated for, especially if they challenge us appropriately.” As educators and as parents, we all hope, to paraphrase Julie Lythcott-Haims from her book, to educate or parent our way out of a job. We want to help our students and our children find resilience, value in the rewards of hard work, joy in learning and being, and intrinsic motivation. With those four traits I think our students will be ready to take on college and what lies beyond. It’s our job as educators and as parents to help these amazing kids get out there and soar. Thank you.

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