David Snyder

Adolescent Motivation in the U.S. and China: What the Research Says

A new study published in the July/August issue of Child Development finds that both U.S. and Chinese adolescents experience a decline in academic motivation during 7th and 8th grades. The study looked at more than 800 students in the two nations and found that although the decline was universal, there was less decline in motivation among Chinese students, perhaps attributable to a greater social emphasis—at home and in school—on the value of academics. It is this difference that is grabbing headlines in press coverage of the study.

But what does this mean for the whole child? In a section of the report titled "Implications for the United States-China Learning Gap," the authors state that "although the sustained value and behavior among Chinese children may bode well for their achievement, it may take an emotional toll on them. As the quality of Chinese children's motivational beliefs deteriorates, they may come to experience their engagement in schoolwork as not only tedious but also pressured, which may cause emotional problems". 

Moreover, the authors attempt to explain the universal decline in motivation as evidence of "a poor fit between their developmental stage and environment" and state that "despite major innovations, American middle schools are often at odds with children's psychological needs." They see a similar mismatch in Chinese middle schools, with growing needs for autonomy and social acceptance going unmet.

While the headlines may seem to trumpet evidence of the United States falling behind other countries, the reality is much more complicated. In your opinion, how can middle schools best work to keep students motivated and engaged in schoolwork, while meeting their evolving emotional needs?

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