Monday / April 22

A Confession About Motivation

I confess: I don’t believe in motivation. I don’t believe we can motivate kids to learn. Like you, I learned about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in my teacher preparation courses. Intrinsic, I was told, is the best, because the student is internally motivated to learn. However, unless the student tells the teacher what is motivating him or her, the teacher never knows exactly what is intrinsically motivating. And, even if the student says, “I just liked the activity” or “I liked how you introduced the topic,” or “I like cars, so I made my project about cars,” there’s no guarantee that what motivated the student intrinsically in one situation will continue to motivate that student. And, what about the rest of the students in the classroom? If the teacher is able to motivate one student by appealing to what motivates him or her intrinsically, will the teacher be able to motivate all the students the same way? Or, will – as I suspect – something different appeal to other students? And, how will the teacher provide just the right topic, curriculum, activity, or teaching strategy for each of 30 students?

It’s interesting to me that even this scenario – using what apparently motivates students intrinsically to continue to motivate them or motivate others – becomes a matter of extrinsic motivation. The teacher is using a strategy to motivate students, so intrinsic motivation that is used by teachers becomes de facto extrinsic motivation.

So, the teacher is pretty helpless in terms of using intrinsic motivation to help students learn.  Let’s not even consider “real” extrinsic motivation. Bribery has its uses, but as a motivational tool, it is downright Pavlovian. The promise or threat that constitutes extrinsic motivation (“You can go out for recess when you finish your work” or “I’ll need to contact your parents if you don’t finish your work”) is a behaviorist trap. It may get a result – though of dubious value since it was forced – but the long-term consequences may include student dependence on others to be motivated. Talk about manipulation!

So, what’s a teacher to do? Here’s where context enters the picture. Teachers can create a motivational context for learning. The phrase I prefer for “motivational context” is “culture for engagement” because it establishes that the context is the shared beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices of a community, and it dumps the word “motivation” entirely.

What constitutes a “culture for engagement”? The first words that come to mind are easy to remember because they rhyme: voice and choice. A culture that prizes voice allows everyone in the community to have some “say” in what happens in that community. When students are denied their “say,” they are likely to turn off to learning. One of the best ways for teachers to establish a culture that promotes students’ voice is by having regular classroom meetings to decide what is to happen in the classroom – and how – so that everyone has an optimum chance to learn. William Glasser suggested classroom meetings in his mid-sixties work, unfortunately called Reality Therapy. The meetings can be open-ended, during which real and hypothetical situations can be addressed; educational, during which students and adults discuss what should be learned (curriculum) and how (instruction); and problem-solving. Students who feel they have a voice in what affects them in a profound way – schooling – are more likely to be engaged that students who do not have a voice.

Voice does not – as students need to learn – guarantee a decision in their favor. But, paired with choice, voice is powerful. And, the more choices a student has, the more the student is likely to be engaged. Think of all the areas where students can make choices: the classroom environment (where they work), the schedule for learning, what they will learn within the standards (their specific focus for learning), how they will learn (individually or in a group, using technology, doing original research, interviewing people, finding resources, reading, writing, etc.), how they will demonstrate their learning (paper, project, exhibition, portfolio, performance, test/quiz), and what they will do about their learning (applying it outside school, using it to pursue future learning, etc.).

Voice and choice lead to a culture for engagement that is more likely than other cultures to be democratic. A democratic culture requires accountability, however, and that’s the topic I’ll take on for the next blog. Interestingly, accountability is dependent upon relationships, and relationships are themselves an important feature of a culture of engagement, as I’ll show when next we meet.

Written by

Lois Easton works as a consultant, coach, and author. She is author of The Other Side of Curriculum: Lessons for Learners (2001, Heinemann), Engaging the Disengaged: How Schools Can Help Struggling Students Succeed (2008, Corwin), Protocols for Professional Learning (2009, ASCD), and Professional Learning Communities by Design: How Schools Can Help All Students Succeed (Corwin, 2011). She is editor of and contributor to 3 editions of Powerful Designs for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2004, 2008, 2015).

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