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Dr. Wu's ebook - Chapter 1: The Foundation of Student Motivation - Knowing the Why

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

The little girl closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and prepares for the the oncoming blow. She tries to exhale, and reminds herself that the pain flowing through her body will soon be gone. She couldn’t quite decide in those moments, which pain stung the most: The feel of the wooden stick against her skin. Or the insults of stupidity being hurled into her ears. She had been in this dizzying seat far too many times, and somehow she knew that she would be here again soon. The only thing she could say for sure was, she felt sick, and she wanted to go home.

It’s hard to imagine that at one point in Dr. Yuhsien Wu’s life, she was simply unmotivated. As a young girl beginning her studies in Taiwan, she dreaded going to school. A looming pressure weighed on her young shoulders: she was the child of of two college professors. Expectations were high, and her teachers struggled to comprehend this anomaly of a child. This young girl was well aware of the question that was plaguing her teachers:

How could a child with such a strong familial example, be such a lousy student?

Young Dr. Wu was experiencing a pain that she could not seem to articulate. The physical pain she was expressing lead her parents to seek medical help. But doctors came back with no answers, a perfectly healthy young girl. Only in her adulthood would she realize that this pain was far deeper than any physical wound. The stress that young Dr. Wu was experiencing was manifesting in ways that she could not comprehend at such a young age.

Her teachers saw a young girl that was failing her highly educated parents. They saw a girl that was unmotivated, lazy and unintelligent. But what they did not see was the unique family life that Yuhsien had. Though her parents were both college professors, they did not push her to focus on her studies. In fact they sometimes just encouraged her to default to the routine beating, if it could mean avoiding her homework. This experience at home in stark contrast to the traditional culture surrounding them, one that was deeply rooted in high expectations.

Her teachers were blind to her family life, blind to the the invisible pain sending her home each day, and blind to what she really needed in that moment. An enriching and positive environment was out of the question. Her academic atmosphere was toxic, and quite literally felt like torture. At this moment nobody in Yuhsien’s life was approaching her with a few key ingredients to every child’s academic success: motivation and mental preparedness.

Students need a why that meets them at their level. As educators of young learners, one of the first lessons we are taught is to “get down to their level”. This could mean physically, mentally, or even emotionally. Students react differently when an educator hovers over them, looking down on them. However, when an educator bends down and looks them straight in the eye, something in that student changes. So how do we, as parents and educators, give them a why at their level?

Let’s look at an example: Try telling your average 1st grader to work hard on their writing samples so that they can get into a good college one day. Motivation has flown out the window. But if we show them our new school Newsletter, and tell them to work hard and they too could be on the front page, they might strive for their very best.

At this point in Yuhsien’s life, nobody was “getting down to her level”. She was experiencing first hand the repercussions of Performance Oriented education, which we will dive deep into in later chapters. If you do well, you get some kind of physical reward such as candy or a new toy. If you do not do well, you are punished either physically or academically. At this point all young Dr. Wu was receiving was punishment. As many parents may remember themselves, corporal punishment was once regularly used as a deterrent to low achieving students. The result? Young Dr. Wu was not only lacking motivation and mental preparedness, she was also fearful of going to school. She knew that she would never be good enough for her teachers, so her studies further regressed. At that point she wasn’t ready to be a good student because she honestly could not comprehend what it meant to study.

The word study for young students must go beyond linguistics. Study should be a mindset and a motivation that is cultivated deep within. Yuhsien was faced with two paths she could take. She looked to the left and saw reward, she looked to the right and saw punishment. It seems like an easy choice, go towards reward! At least this path is better than punishment, right? But without a why she didn’t look left or right, she simply just put her head down. She was at the same point many of our students are at today. They are stuck in a realm of academic limbo. They put their head down and just move forward. They go through their academic years with their eyes nearly shut just trying to avoid the path of punishment. Or they lean hard into the reward path, where success is only fleeting. Once students reach an age where their work must show passion and heart, which is inevitable, they absolutely must have a why.

Practical Example: We tend to think that our students will eventually just figure out this why on their own, and perhaps a select few do. However we continually meet highly educated and high achieving students who have not yet been pushed to confront their own personal why. They come to the end of their K-12 education, and realize they aren’t really sure who they are. With college years approaching, being confident in your identity is crucial. Recently we were looking over the feedback from a very bright student, and were struck by his clear explanation of finding his why. While working on his college application with us he had to tackle huge tasks such as interview training and essays that show critical thinking, he discovered something key about self-discovery. It is a journey that must be cultivated, and met with deep thinking and self-reflection.

"There seems to be an assumption among people that because you are you, you should already know everything there is to know about yourself. In fact, understanding yourself can be one of the most challenging yet enlightening aspects of life." -A.Z. (Yale, Class of 2022)

If you missed the Introduction to this blog series, be sure to check out our introduction post: How to Raise and Educate Students who are Bi-cultural.

Join us next week as we continue to walk through Dr. Yuhsien Wu's story, and look closer for ways to apply her experience in educating and parenting our children.

Continue Reading in this Series!

Contributed by: Jade Rhoden

Edited by Dr. Yuhsien Wu

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