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Dr. Wu's ebook - Chapter 2: Why does motivation matter?

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

The little girl we talked about in chapter one had clipped wings and had no idea of the big life she was able to lead.

Then, she stepped on an airplane. She knew she was headed towards new sights, new faces, and new smells. But she had no idea that she was about to step into a place where she would discover new purpose.

Yuhsien was brought by her parents to a new existence in America, where she attended an elementary school in Columbia, Missouri.

Some may think that bringing a young child, who is struggling academically, into a foreign environment would be detrimental to the possibility of growth. However in Yuhsien’s case, it was quite the opposite. It was if a light was switched on in Yuhsien’s being. For the first time in her young life, Yuhsien realized that the act of studying did not have to be painful, physically or emotionally. She didn’t have to look down in fear or shame when a teacher spoke to her. In fact, she found that teachers could be gentle and kind. Joy began to flow through her as she realized teachers could actually want to help you, and want to see you grow.

Her parents’ education commitment came and went, and it was time to pack up, and head back to Taiwan. But Yuhsien knew she was not willing to part with this new life. She was determined to stay, even if that meant staying on her own.

In Yuhsien’s young life she had already experienced the polar extremes of the educational spectrum. These two different environments fostered, what we can call, completely different “goal orientations”. Children, students, and even adults are continually driven by some form of goal orientation.

Performance Orientation

Performance Orientation is most often found when a student is being pushed by others, is proving themselves to others, or is competing with others. Students who are led by performance orientation very well could have good grades, and successfully engage in several extracurricular activities. But when confronted with the questions of “why do you study so hard?” or ”why do you play that instrument?”, students often refer to an external cause, such as “to get a better grade of course!” or “because my mom wants me to.” As an educator, we can quickly spot a student with a performance orientation, just like college admissions officers can through reading a college essay. The pressure to act rather than the simple joy to learn is so deeply rooted that often times, students are not even aware of how their word choice is giving themselves away.

Performance orientation can also be found in lower achieving students. How do they get their parent or teachers off their backs? They get by just enough to go unnoticed. Their work is all stemming from the pressures of academic survival. Motivation is diminishing, confidence is lacking, so they push forward only to reach the plateau of academic invisibility.

Mastery Orientation

Mastery orientation finds its source internally. It is something that is cultivated by a true desire to learn, grow, and master something. But the catch is, that mastery is for the student’s own personal pride and sense of accomplishment. Mastery orientation is not fazed by the need to be number one. It is not pushed by comparing oneself to others. It exists for the sake of self-betterment.

Does It Matter?

The following quote came from one of our high achieving students during our college application advising session, which reveals his internal confusion. This student attends a top high school in the area, has strong grades, and is the captain of a sports team, but he did not understand his goal orientation, and it was precisely why he struggled in crafting a meaningful college application essay.

“For the first time in my life so far, I was pushed to consider why I did things, as opposed to how I did things. To be honest, I didn’t have a clear conception of my identity as an individual or what I wanted from a college education. I had a long way to go.”

The Awakening

In Taiwan, Yuhsien was just trying to survive. She wasn’t mentally ready for studies at that time, and did not have the environment to even discover any other way of learning. Her confidence was so low, that neither orientation was a reality for her. In America she realized that learning and studying could actually be enjoyable, and give a student a feeling of fulfillment. She realized that school didn’t have to be a place of fear, humiliation, and shame. Rather it could be a place to find yourself. She began going above and beyond with her own effort and drive by assigning herself extra reading and homework simply because she wanted to do better, and be better. She wanted to make up for lost time, and prove her academic worth. She was now only proving her worth to herself. She wasn’t side tracked by comparisons with others. She was committed to the long term marathon of learning, but she was the only runner, with a mastery orientation.

The Shift to be Stronger

Performance oriented students shy away from challenges, they don’t want to face the possibility of failure that could come after. But Yuhsien was taking huge risks, and seeking out new challenges because she was coming to understand that internal growth was at the end of every new challenge. Her goals became long term, and she was beginning to comprehend that each day she could be better and better. And it only depended on her own push.

How Can We Help Our Child?

So how do we as parents and educators avoid creating an environment of Performance Orientation? How do we create and foster a place where students become internally driven by Mastery Performance?

We must collectively begin to shift our approach, and place all importance on understanding. Often we skip over understanding, and teach our kids the shortcuts of how to just get to the answer.

We must take the highest importance off of high scores, and who is best in class. The answer might not always be right, but it’s the path of understanding that the student took that matters.

We must keep in mind how this will affect their future attitudes towards studying, work, and personal growth. External motivations either fade or consume us to the point of high peaks of anxiety. Internal motivations give continual drive. They bring high rewards that cause us to continue pushing forward, even in the face of failure.

From Yuhsien’s life we can see that everything about a student can change with an orientation shift. Their personal outlook, their study habits, and ultimately their future. As we promote a healthy goal orientation, we tell our students that we love them enough to see them set strong roots in understanding. We tell them that they deserve to be confident in themselves, and have wings to fly. We tell them that we believe they can live bigger lives, all on their own motivation. As parents, our role is to guide our child to grow a passion and shift their motivation to one that is growth-related. With patience, this can be done.

Continue Reading in this Series!

Written by Jade Rhoden

Edited by Yuhsien Wu

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