May 22, 2018
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Searsport special education teacher making strides in learning about student motivation

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

SEARSPORT, Maine — What would it mean to educators — and students — if students who are at-risk of low school performance could be identified as they are just getting started in their academic careers?

Keith Dunson, the special education resource room teacher at Searsport District High School, is winding up two years of research that he believes will allow educators to screen school populations to reliably identify those at-risk children. It turns out that those kids share a higher-than-normal tendency for traits including competition and a need for acceptance, and a lower-than-usual tendency for traits such as curiosity and order.

“I’ve always felt we’re missing something when working with at-risk kids,” Dunson said Tuesday afternoon. “There are certain psychological characteristics that determine people’s behavior. When I really got into this study, I realized it’s not how I motivate students. It’s how they are motivated.”

Dunson will be presenting those findings next month at the fourth annual conference of the World Society of Motivation Scientists and Professionals in Washington, D.C.

Dunson said he first grew interested in how motivation works years ago, when he found that no one was really researching how it works in students. He found the work of Steven Reiss, a now-retired Ohio State University professor, who had put together a scientific understanding of motivation and posited that there are certain psychological characteristics that determine people’s behavior.

Two years ago, Dunson, Reiss and psychology professor Carl Weems of the University of New Orleans joined together to see how to apply those findings to elementary school-aged children.

With the help of RSU 20 officials and teachers who volunteered their time to fill out anonymous questionnaires on about 300 students, Dunson was able to identify those characteristics that seem key in children who have difficulties succeeding in school.

One of those — acceptance — means that a student really has a need to be accepted for doing good things.

“The difficulty is that it can result in a fear of failure,” Dunson said.
“They’re willing to take on a task, as long as it appears as though it’s in their grasp.”

Another of the characteristics that at-risk students appear to lack is curiosity.

“These children don’t mind having knowledge,” he said. “They don’t enjoy getting it. The defining factor here is that they don’t like overthinking things. They don’t like having to analyze things.”

That inclination can put these children at “serious risk” for falling behind academically.

Dunson stressed that while these and other characteristics identified are not abnormal, they are seen as abnormal in the school setting.

But if these children can be identified, along with the ways that they are motivated, it could help teachers and others work with them so they do better in school.

“Kids are going to come to value being in a classroom if they understand their basic needs are being met,” he said.

According to Dunson, Searsport District High School has created a pilot project for freshman students who have had their motivations identified.
The students were assigned learning groups, and within those groups given certain duties that related to their psychological needs, he said.

“It worked well,” he said. “This is a very new thing for education … this is going to take some time. I think what we’ve done is lay down the foundation for the next generation of methodologies for helping kids at school.”

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