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Celebrating "Back-to-School" (or Not)

Right now, across this country, teachers are prepping their classrooms, uploading and scanning their rosters, revising their unit and lesson plans to meet the needs of their states, their districts, and their many students, and motivating themselves for the challenging and rewarding work of teaching in the 21st century. Like a surfer about to drop into a big wave, this is a time of expectation and excitement.

For many parents, however, it’s a time of relief. Since June, kids have been on furlough from the classroom, which translates into drastically increased parenting responsibilities. Providing safe, fun, and growth-inspiring activities during the longest days of the year can be as unrelentingly exhausting as it is delightful—just ask a teacher! But the motivation for parents to do this well is built into the work—it’s their kid they’re raising. Even so, the prospect of sending kids back to school where they will learn, connect, develop—and frankly, just be supervised for free by someone else for six to seven hours per day—is one of the best things we do to support families (and to promote parental sanity). This is why, for many adults, the back-to-school season is something to be celebrated.

But what’s this back-to-school experience like for kids? How do they experience this return to the classroom? Whether they’re 7 or 17, it’s likely they just spent months deciding for themselves how to allocate significant portions of their days: inventing projects, building things (and breaking them), making teams, going on adventures, discovering new friends and new activities, and generally experiencing what it’s like to do things on their own terms (at least partly). Then, right around Labor Day, they head back to a place where rules abound, bells mark time, seats are assigned, dress codes are enforced, behavior is supervised, and constant focus and hard work are expected. While a day of carefree goofing off might have been normal just a week ago, now even a moment of “off-task behavior” may merit a detention. Talk about an abrupt transition!

While this adult-child juxtaposition may be a tad overstated, I frame it this way to make a point: The extent to which you celebrate or lament the return to school depends on whether you experience it as an opening or a closing of possibility. If, like many parents and teachers, you experience this time of the year as an enhancement of your autonomy and self-determination, you will likely look forward to it. We all tend to be drawn to activities that allow us the freedom to choose our own path. But the truth is that many kids don’t celebrate the back-to-school moment precisely because it feels like the end of their freedom.

In a research paper I recently co-authored with my colleague, Mike Nakkula, we presented a summary of what we know about adolescent motivation and engagement in school. One key finding from that article is when learners feel as though they have the freedom—what we call “agency”—to act in a way that will produce meaningful change in themselves and/or in the context in which they live, motivation and engagement levels tend to be high. Choice, it turns out, really matters. Conversely, when learners feel like they have no agency, when they feel that their actions and outcomes are determined by others, the motivation to achieve and the decision to engage will likely diminish. In other words, agency drives motivation and engagement.

So what’s this have to do with going back to school? Well, I’m a teacher, so I’ll answer this question with more questions: Do our schools and classrooms reflect what is known about how to motivate and engage children and youth? Do our educational policies enhance teacher and student agency? How much freedom do we give to students so they are able to construct new knowledge and practice new skills on terms that are at least partly theirs? In our efforts to standardize curricula and hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for high academic achievement, have we forgotten the insight that always being told what to do can strip creativity, exploration, invention, and curiosity from learning?

At this time of year, it’s particularly important to remember that our kids—just like us—need to feel some ownership over an activity if they’re to invest in it fully. They’ll be engaged in the learning and motivated to succeed when they have a stake in how the work unfolds and a choice in the role they might play.

In the next week, countless students will be asked to respond to the prompt, “What did you do this summer?” It’s my hope that we pay better attention to the motivational signals students send when they answer simply, “What I wanted to do.”

Eric Toshalis coauthored "Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice" along with Mike Nakkula as part of Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core, a Jobs for the Future initiative funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Students at the Center synthesizes existing research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning.

Toshalis and Nakkula have also coauthored Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators, published by Harvard Education Press (2006).