When I speak or write or teach about motivation, I focus on what classroom teachers like me can control. This is a basic assumption of my work: I’m better off working at what I can affect than I am fixating on matters I don’t control. And after all, the research is clear: student motivation is heavily contextual, meaning that when students are with me in my room, I influence their engagement — via their beliefs — with each decision, interaction, poster, and policy.
But make no mistake: K-12 curricula have a deep and massive influence on student motivation, too. When a K-12 curriculum is knowledge-lite, an opportunity gap emerges where some students gain broad knowledge through life experience while others do not. A compound effect occurs here — sometimes called the “Matthew Effect” — in which those with a chance to learn all kinds of things are able to learn all kinds of more things, whereas those without such a chance find it harder to learn new things. Since knowledge begets knowledge, if you’re working in a district without a guaranteed and actually taught (i.e., viable), knowledge-rich curricula, you’re going to have to work harder to motivate students to do the hard, slow-going work of catching up. Whether we like it or not, cognitive science is clear: background knowledge is perhaps the foundation of higher order thinking and comprehension, and there are no shortcuts to developing it.
There are two things we can do in such situations:
1) Focus on becoming great at a few basic things. That’s what These 6 Things is about — you can have great instructional impact in any school system by mastering these essentials. And yet simultaneously, we can work to…
2) …Advocate for a knowledge-rich curriculum in your district. Natalie Wexler makes the best extended case in her book, and the Knowledge Matters Campaign has the best quick-read materials.
There’s no question about it: we can influence student motivation at the classroom level, but the most profound long-term flourishing impacts will only get unleashed when we bring coherent, cumulative, knowledge-rich curricula to all of our classrooms, starting on our smallest students’ very first day of school.