When speaking about learning (and especially “achievement”) the emphasis all too often on what students do rather than why they are doing it. The emphasis is on all of the things that can be seen, (test scores, grades, actions, behaviors) rather than the foundation of all that can’t be seen (thoughts, emotions, attitudes). We forget that we are not only expecting behaviors, but shaping attitudes. We are not only consciously working with content, we are growing (or not) an emotional connection to that content. For instance, Robert Coles suggests that the purpose of reading literature is to address what he calls the great moral question, how does one live a life? Reading in order to address this question is a very different experience from reading a book in order to perform well on a test. If reading is simply a transaction that leads to a certain grade, then my engagement will be very different than if the purpose of my reading is to address the great existential questions in my life.
Attitude and motivation make a difference in how, and to what degree, students engage in their work. We know that students’ attitude towards a task determines both their level of engagement during class, and their future engagement in the discipline or activity once the class is completed. Daniel Pink has synthesized much of the research on motivation in his book Drive. Please watch this video for a wonderful explanation on what really drives us all, and what we need to consider in our work with students.