Feb. 3, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 11

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    Enjoyment of learning crucial for students to excel

    Gifted high school students thrive when their homes and schools provide a combination of challenges and emotional support that helps them feel a sense of "flow" when they are totally engaged in their talent area, research at the University shows.

    Students who achieve this "flow" find their work so pleasurable that they pursue it as a reward in itself, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor in Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi reports his findings with co-researchers Samuel Whalen, Sloan Foundation Fellow in Education, and Kevin Rathunde, assistant professor in family studies at the University of Utah, in the book "Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure," published recently by Cambridge University Press.

    Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the flow theory of human behavior. In previous books he has developed the theory, which describes the satisfaction people feel when they become challenged to use their skills to the utmost. In "Talented Teenagers," Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues apply flow theory for the first time to adolescent talent development. Many of their findings apply to a broad range of students, Csikszentmihalyi said.

    The researchers found that enjoyment plays a crucial role in helping students become interested in a talent area and stay with it.

    "Unfortunately, many adults who have not been able to pursue a vocation that they enjoy will be reluctant to accept this general conclusion," the authors write. "They will tend to see interest and effort, and play and work, as separate realms because that is how they normally experience them.

    "Yet most people remember a time, no matter how brief, when they were swept along by a sense of effortless control, clarity and concentration on an enjoyable challenge. It may have happened on the athletic field, on a scout outing, or in a high school choir, but such moments are often enshrined in memory," they add.

    The authors gained an unusual understanding of how teenagers experience their homes and schools by using a technique called Experience Sampling Method (ESM). The researchers asked 200 high school students to wear beepers for a week at a time over a four-year period. The beepers went off at random times, and the students recorded what they were doing and thinking at those times.

    The researchers used the approach to study teenagers who were gifted in music, art, athletics, mathematics and science. They found similar characteristics in the home lives and classroom experiences of most of the students.

    The gifted students who were successful in developing and sustaining their talent came from what the researchers called "complex" homes. In these homes, two forces are present -- one pulling toward stability, encouraging students to be cooperative with the other family members, and one pushing the students to grow and change.

    "Often families are of one extreme or the other," Csikszentmihalyi said. "Parents at one end become so concerned about student achievement that they pay attention only to the long-term accomplishments that come as a result of their children taking music lessons or making good grades. The youngsters feel that they are being ignored for who they are outside those areas.

    "On the other hand, some parents do not pay enough attention to challenging their children, and accordingly the gifted students in those families do not achieve what they could," he added.

    The complex families produce children best equipped to face challenges, the researchers found. "Complex family environments breed complex, autotelic personalities -- in other words, individuals who habitually react to a boring situation by seeking stimulation and challenge, and to an anxiety-provoking one by increasing skills," they write.

    Students were able to find flow experiences in the classroom when teachers created autotelic, or self-rewarding, environments for them. Teachers did this by nurturing their own interests in the subjects they taught and conveying an enthusiasm for learning about their disciplines to the students. They also minimized the pressures brought on by competition, grades and needless rules and were flexible and attentive to the changing needs of their students.

    Good teachers for both gifted and non-gifted students ignored prescribed formulas about what makes a model classroom, the authors found.

    "We assume that if the material is well-organized and logically presented, students will learn it. Nothing is further from the fact. Students will learn only if they are motivated. Unless a person enjoys the pursuit of knowledge, learning will remain a tool to be set aside as soon as it is no longer needed," they write.

    Although some of the students reported feeling challenged, and accordingly motivated, in their classrooms, most of them found their highest degree of engagement in extracurricular activities. Their levels of concentration zoomed when they were involved in sports or music, data gathered by the ESM approach showed.

    The students were eager to achieve in the extracurricular areas because participation was voluntary. In contrast, they had difficulty staying committed to required courses.

    Moreover, the researchers found differences in the internal and external rewards experienced by athletically, musically and artistically talented students and the rewards experienced by scientifically and mathematically gifted students. Those differences explain why some students stay involved in their talent areas and why some fall away from them, Csikszentmihalyi said.

    Gifted students need both internal and external rewards in order to stay motivated, the researchers found.

    Students with talents in athletics, music and art felt a strong sense of internal satisfaction from what they were doing but could sustain their interest only if they were able to discover external or long-range value in their talent area, Csikszentmihalyi said. For many of these students, the prospect of employment based on their gifts was limited, and accordingly their desire to continue their pursuit of talent was tempered.

    Talented mathematics and science students, on the other hand, felt more confident about the long-range rewards that would come to them by employment. But they were able to sustain their interest only if they discovered a joy in their talent area and accordingly could feel an internal reward for what they were studying, Csikszentmihalyi said.

    The research findings about motivation in development of talent apply to non-gifted as well as gifted teenagers. Providing challenges that motivate students is an important task for all parents and teachers, he said.

    "As adults responsible for the growth of the next generation, we should know that we are not doing our jobs unless we provide youth with opportunities to live right -- that is, with chances to do their best," the authors conclude. "A just society is one in which men and women, rich and poor, the gifted and the handicapped, have an equal opportunity to use and to increase all of their abilities, each according to her or his talents. We are still a long way away from reaching that goal, but every step we take in that direction will make life richer and more meaningful for all."

    -- William Harms