The Motivation Gene?

carrotIn a study released April 8th of this year, researcher and psychology professor at Ohio State University, Stephen Petrill, suggests that motivation to learn is primarily a function of the student’s gene pool. That’s right. According to an article in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, to be published in July (2015), student motivation is inherited!

In a comprehensive study of 13,000 fraternal and identical twins across six culturally diverse countries, Petrill found that in 40-50% of the cases, inherited dispositions toward learning (i.e. parental genes) and non-shared environmental factors (e.g. diverse home situations or different classroom placements) had the most significant impact on motivational behavior. Whereas shared environmental factors (e.g. same home life, same teachers) had nearly no (3%) impact on student motivation.

Scientists are far from isolating the “motivation gene,” if one exists. The study declares that motivation is a very complex process that closely ties genetics and gene-environment interactions. So, is it time to stop the blame game? Parents and their offspring may be powerless to instigate a motivational turn around. And teachers, it seems, cannot be held completely responsible for failing to reach their reluctant scholars. Perhaps it’s time to remove that ‘motivates students’ line item criterion from the administrator’s observation checklist?

Inherited personality differences aside, should teachers now abdicate their role as chief encourager, engager, stimulator, or inspirer? We certainly hope not. Teachers must be prudent about dealing with this new pedagogical reality even as constructivist instructional practice has shown such promise in reaching even the most unenthusiastic learner.

A quick Internet search will provide a cascade of constructivist strategies to stimulate intrinsic engagement in the classroom. From inquiry- and project-based learning to discovery and cooperative learning, and from flipping the learning sequence, or adding choice and authenticity, ideas for creating a student-centered and highly motivational environment abound. For progressive educators like me motivation can be summed up in this century’s “Three Rs:”

  • Rigor (i.e. allowing for heady, interesting, timely, and deep discovery/inquiry);
  • Relevance (i.e. permitting student choice, passion, interest to guide inquiry);
  • Relationships (i.e. consenting to diverse and differentiated group situations for exploration and presentation).
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