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Motivate Homeschool Children – Harvard Business Style!

Motivate Homeschool Children – Harvard Business Style!

As homeschooling parents, we often look for the best way to motivate our children in their academics. Professor Brandon Irwin of Harvard Business School has conducted studies regarding motivational style. Although this was done with business organizations in mind, we parents can sometimes learn from such studies and apply the same principles to our educational adventure.

Silent vs. Active Participation: Which motivational style works best for your child:

  • let the child work alone?
  • verbal encouragement?
  • be silently nearby?

1. The Plank Experiment:

In a research experiment organized by Professor Irwin, exercise participants were asked to perform two sets of abdominal exercises called “planks.” (A plank is an isometric core strength exercise that involves maintaining a difficult position for extended periods of time. The most common plank is the front plank which is held in a push-up position with the body’s weight borne on forearms, elbows, and toes.) Participants were organized into 3 groups:

Group 1 – Some did both sets alone

Group 2 – Others did the first exercise group alone, and the second group with a

virtual partner projected on a screen who encouraged participants with such phrases as “Come, on”, “You can do it”, and “You got this”;

Group 3 – For half of those with a virtual partner, the partner silently exercised along with them, with no verbal communication.

Results of the Plank Experiment:

  1. The subjects who performed the second set with a partner, exercised longer than those who did it alone.
  2. Those with silent partners did planks 33% longer.
  3. Those who had “encouraging” partners did the planks 22% longer than the non-partnered group.

So, why were performance results surprisingly lower with encouraging coaching than performance with a silent partner?

Irwin’s finding:

The subjects with vocal partners considered their “encouraging” coaches equal to them despite contrary evidence. Why? Possibly because subjects didn’t think the words of encouragement were directed at them personally, but rather to the coaches themselves, thus perceiving their “encouraging” coaches as less capable.

If one determines that their partner is not superior, then the subject does not have to exert as much effort to obtain a favorable comparison.

Irwin was surprised with the results:

  1. Constant encouragement did not have the intended effect of inspiring participants to improve.
  2. The motivating factor in achieving superior results was to have a partner viewed as being superior, since the participant wants to compare favorably with the partner.

2. The Bike Experiments A

Follow-up research was conducted by Prof. Irwin using another exercise. This time participants rode exercise bikes over five sessions.

Group One- had no partners

Group Two – had silent virtual partners.

Results of the Bike Experiment A:

  1. The bikers with silent partners doubly outperformed those with no partners.

3. The Bike Experiments B (Team Component)

Another element was added to the latter group with virtual silent partners. Some in this group were told that they were part of a team and that their score would contribute to the overall score for the five sessions.

Results of the Bike Experiment B:

  1.  The results of this added element were that the subjects with partners on a team tripled their time on the bikes.

Summary Points:

So, how can we apply this experiment to our homeschooling teaching methods?

  1. Continuous encouragement of your child is important. They want to be successful in their endeavors and your affirmation of their efforts will positively benefit both of you. They will want to receive that gift from you time and again.
  2. Specific encouragement is more effective than general encouragement and children love to hear their name mentioned in a loving way. Instead of saying, “Of course you can do math,” it might be better to say,” I know you can do math, John, because you did really well on last week’s test.” This kind of support reminds John of his past success and instills in him the belief that if he did well once, he can do it again.
  3. Use your child’s name periodically within your homeschool dialogues, suggestions, and instructions. This may sound silly within a family structure, but it reinforces that they are unique and special to you. Perhaps reflect on when and how often you call your child by name? Is it only when they are in trouble or when you need something?
  4. Create family projects and mention how each person’s contribution affects the whole team effort. Your projects might include: fundraise for the Church’s youth group; create and maintain a vegetable garden; care for the outside grounds; create a special surprise dinner for Dad; make preparations for someone’s birthday party; or host an entertainment night just for Grandma and Grandpa.

Point out how the project’s or event’s success or failure depends on each person doing their special part. Have a family meeting and brainstorm some ideas of exciting experiences to undertake. These projects can foster precious family memories, while all are together having fun while at the same time contributing to the enjoyment of others. Look for these opportunities and you will be amazed how many you can start to find! Life is an adventure and it is even more rewarding when we share it with others, these types of activities strengthen family bonds, and brings out unique skills and talents of each member.

Try it and Share Your Results:  If you try these techniques with your children, please share your results below! Your comments might help other families to motivate their children to a greater degree.

The most challenging part of these experiments would be to create a “team environment”. So this part in particular feel free to share. Did you glean any unusual insights or tips?

Obviously, don’t forget prayers and Divine intercession!

(The subject of this article was taken from Harvard Business Review Online– July-August 2013)

About Mary Lou Warren

For 17 years, Mary Lou has been Director of Conferences for Seton and IHM Conferences. A single mom and former homeschooler. In 2013, she was interviewed on EWTN about Catholic Home Schooling, and Radio Maria has interviewed her several times. Meet Mary Lou
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