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U Researcher Reports Environments that Promote Deep Engagement Yield More “Psychologically Complex” Students

May 16, 2005 — According to a new study issued this month by University of Utah researcher Kevin R. Rathunde and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, world-renowned originator of the concept of “flow,” students in traditional middle schools experience nearly four more hours per week of what was classified as “drudgery” than those enrolled in Montessori middle schools, where students experience more intrinsically motivated deep engagement. (Montessori schools follow the educational philosophy of Italian educator Maria Montessori, who emphasized social interaction and the education of the whole personality, rather than a specific body of knowledge.)

Rathunde, an associate professor in the University’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, explains that the research, published this month in The American Journal of Education, looked to Montessori schools as “already existing contexts representing several important middle school reform ideas.”

The findings on motivating 6th and 8th graders -and establishing optimal environments for them-are significant for parents and educators, Rathunde notes, as research suggests environments of deep engagement better serve students long-term, allowing them to become “psychologically complex,” manifesting emotional involvement-enthusiasm, enjoyment and motivation for what they are doing-combined with cognitive involvement-rational and goal-directed thought about their subject matter.

“Individuals who have complexity weave these two parts of themselves together to become motivated, lifelong learners,” Rathunde explains. “They more often have deep involvement in their work, a kind of dynamic motivation that keeps the motor of lifelong learning churning along.” He adds that these individuals have often developed an awareness of roadblocks that slow them down and often have gained insight into how to regulate themselves.

However, this “complexity” combination of emotional and cognitive involvement can easily get distorted as schools overemphasize one part of the equation. For this study researchers tracked students’ “divided” and “undivided” interest, the latter defined as the simultaneous merging of emotional and cognitive involvement. Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi studied thousands of self-reported “snapshots” of students who chronicled their experiences during various activities eight times a day for seven days.

Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi report the main finding from the 300 students observed: Montessori students experience about three and a half more hours of undivided interest. The traditional students, in contrast, reported about four more hours of divided interest or drudgery.

“We call that state ‘drudgery’-when there is cognitive involvement, but little emotion or enthusiasm,” Rathunde says. Students in traditional school environments reported drudgery 43.9 percent of the time while their Montessori counterparts reported it only 26.1 percent of the time. The researchers took special care to make sure that the students who were compared had similar student-teacher ratios, parent income and education and family backgrounds.

The Montessori schools differed from the traditional in that they focused on intrinsic motivation; provided significant portions of unstructured time-up to two hours a day-for self-directed work in a variety of subjects; did not require mandatory grading or standardized tests for comparative purposes; enabled students to play an active role in the decision-making by forming “leadership groups;” and encouraged working together in small cohorts. The traditional schools studied offered little time for self-directed work, followed block schedules, used lecture formats and mandatory grading and did not allow students significant roles in decision-making.

“This research should not be seen as promoting Montessori schools,” Rathunde explains. “It does suggest, however, that some school practices may be doing a better job preparing students for lifelong learning.”