Before I go on about how kids will work with independence and enthusiasm when they are pursuing their passions, here is a video of a young woman talking about her senior project. This video is from the What Kids Can Do: Just Listen project.
If you want kids to work independently, if you want to stop having to keep after them, if you want to see them move ahead on the momentum their work without constantly having to tell them why it's important, then let them decide what they want to study. If it's important to them to show the world this topic that they love, they will pursue it. If it's about who they are, they'll go after it. Give them the chance to study something that is part of them, and accept that topic, whatever it is.
Dennis Littkey, in The Big Picture, talks of a student who wanted to do a presentation/gallery exhibit on death. She interviewed funeral directors, toured cemeteries, examined different death rituals. Another student wanted to do a project on Tupac Shakur: his music, his life and murder, and the various posthumous sightings. The teachers didn't bat an eyelash. For their own reasons, these kids needed to study and present on these topics; each of them found that these interests led them to another, and another. They grew to respect themselves because their teachers respected their need to pursue what they did.
In another post I talk about the concept of ignition as a critical factor in learning. Pursuing mastery is difficult; it requires hard work, focus, frustration. The only thing that can really carry a student through the required work is ignition. With no ignition, no spark, learning is rote, learning is boring, learning is stupid (let's face it...it's not even learning.)
Yet the ignition needed to pursue mastery can't be planned; it comes from within or not at all. I could never have ignited my daughter to want to put on
and make her feet hurt on a bi-weekly basis! Hey, they're not my toes, they're HER toes! But she loves it, and tells me that her feet are emotionally happy, even if they are not physically happy. She practices at home as often as I let her -- and I only limit it out of concern for those poor toes and ankles. She'd practice constantly, if not for that.
Those who are skeptical of what I'm saying will (and often have) immediately jump to the conclusion that I don't think kids should learn anything unless they are passionate about it. No, it's not what I'm saying; I do think that motivation is complicated and comes from a lot of different directions for kids. They are motivated by what their friends like to do; by a teacher they admire; by a movie about a topic; and on and on. But how about this: let's bring about motivation by allowing kids to know what they are capable of. Let them get over the initial hump of difficulty because they were ignited.
I remember being told that the development of a writer is the process of finishing a piece and moving on to the next one; evaluating, judging, criticizing oneself, then starting something new. It's similar in education; in a sense, learning happens when you complete something and stand back to see what it was you were able to accomplish, take a moment to be proud, then start the next thing.
If a student is truly passionate about what she is doing, her momentum pushes her through the difficulties; in the end, she's done something to be proud of and is ready for the next thing.
If motivation is the problem, let passion be the solution.