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Motivation 101 and Why Teachers MUST Know This...

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

What Teachers NEED to Know About Motivation

When I first started teaching, I did not think very much about motivation, even with an undergrad in Psychology. I relied on crafting meaningful relationships with the students and believed that in turn, they would be motivated. Relationships are an important piece of motivation, but there is SO much more to it. By about year seven, I began to shift my focus more to motivation. Two mechanisms were at play that year, first, I had a group of students that did not seem motivated by my current methods and two, it was the year I decided to go back to school and get a second master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Of course, the focus was more in the workplace, but one of my favorite classes was Motivation in the Workplace. I really began to think about how I could create a more inspiring and motivating classroom. Since then, it has become a passion of mine to transform education in my classroom, in my school and to anyone who will listen to me!

Most people probably already know about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but this is where we will start. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something “because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation” (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Conversely, extrinsic motivation“refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome,” such as doing classwork because it earns a grade or merely working on a work project in hopes of a bonus (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Much of education is built around extrinsic motivators and many teachers have used them and found some success. The teacher may reward their student with candy after getting an answer correct when raising their hand. This yields short-term results. Yet, it is not sustainable. The student is not yearning to learn the material, they are merely complying to earn candy. What will happen if the teacher stops using candy as a reward? Most likely the student will stop raising their hand.

In the past extrinsic motivators worked beautifully. Many jobs were rather mundane in the 19th century and part of the 20th century. Most people were blue collar workers, working in a factory, doing the same repetitive work hour by hour, day by day. Employees would work harder and faster in attempt to earn whatever small reward may be offered. This is the essence of extrinsic motivation. The factory worker was not working harder and faster because it gave them a sense of purpose but because they wanted the reward. We carried these notions of motivation into the classroom as the traditional classroom was born in this era. In the professional world and the educational world, people continued to believe that extrinsic rewards were the most effective. Many STILL believe this. If they did not, I would not be writing this…

Alas, through a lot of research many psychologists and economists began to realize that extrinsic motivators were not as rewarding in modern situations. Over and over again, researchers have found that extrinsic motivators sap creativity and critical thinking (Pink, 2009). Daniel Pink writes about Sam Glucksberg, who used the Candlestick problem (a previous psychology experiment on functional fixedness) and offered a reward if they solved the problem. The subjects who were told they would get a cash reward performed slower than the people who were not offered anything. This has been replicated in many settings and been performed with different scenarios. But every time, the group who was offered an external prize, performed WORSE. It has been determined that when we have a problem to solve that requires critical thinking, extrinsic motivators make us perform worse. This is the OPPOSITE of what we want to do in our classrooms. If we want to move our students to the 21st century world with jobs that require critical thinking and creativity, we need to change what we are doing in the classroom. Teachers cannot move every extrinsic motivator out of their classroom. They serve their purpose in particular situations. But you need to start where you can. I started by not offering candy or small rewards like that on tasks that required problem solving, creativity or thinking. Save those rewards for small tasks and make them more of a surprise, not an expectation. I began to evaluate the grades that I offered my students and how I would grade the work that they did. An “easier” fix may be changing the classroom to one that encourages more intrinsic motivation. Ryan and Deci propose the “Self-Determination Theory,” this theory posits that to drive motivation we must experience feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

This makes so much sense in education. No one likes feeling incompetent. A feeling of incompetence is likely to make many students shut down and stop trying. Building those feelings of competence through scaffolded instruction, personalized learning, or material that the student enjoys. Autonomy is the feeling that one has a sense of control over their own lives. As adults, autonomy is easy to relate to. No one loves having a boss that is domineering and controlling. But, often, our notions of what education is, leaves students with VERY LITTLE control. The teacher is the one planning the lessons of what to learn (though often based on state standards), how the class will learn the material and how to will be assessed. What if the students picked what they learned, how they learned it and how they would be assessed? Finally, the last need is relatedness. This is where those relationships come in. It is IMPORTANT for you to build those relationships with your students and get to know them. Students need those relationships with their teachers and have those relationship with their peers in your classroom. When all these needs come together, they will maximize motivation in the classroom. This is only the tip of the iceberg of motivation. More on another day…. Check back soon!

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