The belief that children have short attention spans and need to be motivated is one of the most damaging myths in education. Watch any child BEFORE they are forced to enter “compulsory” education. You don’t have to “motivate” them to learn to communicate…or to walk. And they do both with very little, if any, direct instruction.
You will often see a 2 or 3 year old repeat the same action over and over, totally oblivious to what is going on around them. Why? Because they are fascinated by something that often remains a mystery to anyone watching. They will stay at the task until they have learned what they want to learn. And then, they’re off to something else.
Forcing children who are born wanting to learn into someone else’s schedule and someone else’s content is why they quickly lose interest. In Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he argues that people are motivated when they see a purpose in doing something. He provides research showing that rewards and/or punishments (external motivation) are much less effective than internal motivation — a want or need that arises within the person.
The way to improve motivation is to vastly increase the choices that students have within the “box” of what you think they should be learning. Learner-centered schools do this very successfully…and motivation is rarely a problem. We need to stop trying to “apply” learning from the outside and begin listening to learners.