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Motivation: Cultivating the Love of Learning

By Jim Leatherwood

We use the word "commencement" to refer to graduation from high school or college. Most graduation speeches express a theme similar to the following:

"Today we are turning a page of the book of life and entering a new chapter."

Commencement is defined in the dictionary as the beginning of something new but it is also a continuation. Rather than leading to a new chapter every graduate must realize that the learning experience, formal and informal, will continue throughout life. Lifetime learning has become a reality of the 21st Century.

It is estimated today that more information will be generated in one year than in the previous 5,000 years. The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. By the year 2010 it is predicted that it will double every 72 hours. Perhaps the most important lesson today's students can learn is that they will always be training and learning. For those who are starting a 4-year technical or college degree program in 2008, one-half of the information they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year.

Graduation at every level (high school, technical school or college) is a great achievement but is only the beginning. Facing the reality of lifelong learning requires educators to cultivate positive attitudes toward learning. Taking mandatory classes and passing tests can result in superficial or negative motivation. Rather than the desire to learn the subject matter, the student is motivated by the fear of negative results. The likely consequence to this negative orientation is a lack of motivation to engage with course material. This experience may reinforce a feeling of incompetence and lead to poor performance in the classroom. It is probable that students in this category will shy away from lifelong learning. As educators it is our mission to turn negative motivation into a positive desire to learn.

D. Stipek in his book Motivation to Learn states the obvious - "Individuals always do best when learning is enjoyable." Learning becomes enjoyable when students engage in learning for their own intrinsic reasons (i.e. because they want to rather than have to). Positive motivation will result when a student develops a positive feeling from mastering subject mater with challenging material. Then by internalizing achievement values the student will also engage in academic activities (mandatory courses) that may be of low interest.

How does an educator motivate his or her students to become ready for lifelong learning? There is no answer that applies to every student but it has been well established that we learn better when the subject matter relates to a real-life situation as in the following example.

The geometry teacher invited a construction engineer to speak to his class. The engineer took the class to an outdoor area. Using string and state-of-the-art surveying equipment he helped the students lay out the foundation lines for a house. This exercise reinforced the importance of calculating accurate angles i.e. geometry.

Such a real-life application of subject matter makes learning enjoyable, practical and long-lasting. The student is also introduced to a career that actually applies the subject matter to a real-life experience. The human resources available in every community are an asset to the educator and help to reinforce the relevance of subject matter.

"Commencement" is definitely a step forward but the path of learning continues. Knowing that there is always more to learn creates a positive energy and excitement as we face the challenges of the future.

About the Author: Jim Leatherwood is the author of Facing the Future Together: Forming Successful School-Business Partnerships.
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