Thursday, March 10, 2011

Motivation and Education

Recently, a friend and colleague posted the following video on his Facebook wall, from the TED conference:

It's worth watching, but the synopsis of it is this: extrinsic motivation--sticks and carrots both--work well for straightforward tasks, but they actually hinder performance on tasks that demand "even rudimentary cognitive skills." People do far better when their motivation is intrinsic.

While posting it, my friend remarked that the talk "has excellent application to what's wrong on Wall Street and in education in regards to intrinsic/extrinsic motivation." I haven't questioned him specifically about this, but it got me to thinking about how this might apply in education.

My initial thoughts, I must admit, were not terribly positive. Schools, if you think about it, seem built almost entirely on external motivators. We force kids to be there in the first place. Once there, we have a more or less rigidly proscribed curriculum, even granting the space for electives. Within each day, we mark off how much time they will be forced/allowed to spend on any of the subject they must study. And while intrinsic motivations certainly drive some of our students, we have ever-present carrots and sticks in the form of grades and the justification that "you need this to get into [a good] college." And then as parents we offer our kids rewards and punishments based on those other rewards and punishments. We may talk about encouraging kids to "find their passion"--we may even believe in the exhortation--but even when they have we require them to study all sorts of other things and to do so on a rigid schedule. That's just what school is. For most people, it's hard to imagine school any other way.

Some years ago, I read a book by Neil Postman--one of his early works, in collaboration with Charles Weingartner--called Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In essence, TaaSA was contrasted with (another of his book titles) Teaching as a Conserving Activity, with the latter being the way that education can and does serve as an indoctrination into the dominant cultural values while the latter is a more Socratic exercise in questioning our assumptions, dragging them out into the light and, as frequently as not, beating them senseless. Postman's work seemed most suited for an English or history/social studies classroom, and the essence of it rested in allowing the class to set the course of study, with the teacher acting as the facilitator. As I recall, students would basically be allowed to decide what they would study, and the study was centered around questions: students would ask questions that were important to them (particularly questions with no certain answer or at least no easy answers) and the teacher would help facilitate the exploration of those questions--not giving them answers though perhaps some guidance--and more questions, too, pushing them to think more deeply. This would seem to fit the bill as education driven by intrinsic motivation.

Now, all that said, there are students who--despite the constraints of school, either have and maintain an essentially intrinsic motivation or, conversely, have a curriculum that is easy enough (at least relative to their abilities) as to actually respond to external motivation. Or perhaps it's just that we all respond differently to the stress of external motivation, even if the overall trend is to have a negative effect.

As I continue thinking about this, though, I can see another application of this to education: the teachers' perspective. Teachers are, in large part, motivated by intrinsic forces in the first place. We didn't go into education for the high salary, though the summer vacations may have played a role in our decision-making process. The point is that a great many teachers are self-motivated to be good teachers. And then what happens? In public education, they're boxed in by half a million stupidities imposed on them from administrators and legislators, most of which get in the way of the things that really help teaching and, at the same time, tend to demotivate. I believe that, given more freedom, most teachers would rise to the occasion, would take the time and autonomy to become better educators and offer more to their students. At least, the educators who aren't already worn down and cynical or inherently lazy.

I think in many cases this is a strength of private schools: with smaller classes and typically smaller class loads, with greater autonomy in the class room thanks to freedom from standardized tests, freedom from requirements to submit lesson plans, and, well, just plain greater autonomy in the classroom, I think that private school teachers often have great success (yes, it also helps that we can be and usually are more selective). At the school where I had my best teaching experience, when I sought a sense of what my English department chair expected us to do, his answer was simple: make our students better readers and writers. To that end, we had a few common texts at each grade level but were otherwise almost completely free. Free to choose texts, free to decide what kinds of assignments and classroom procedures to implement. And, I should add, also supported: colleagues were free with their time and ideas, funds were available for professional development. But I think the centrally important idea was that we had a very basic goal and had a lot of freedom to reach that goal as we saw fit.


  1. Thanks, John.
    Check this read out: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Pink, 2009), autonomy, mastery, and purpose—amp.
    I think you will appreciate it. I did. Luke

  2. Wow. You brought back some powerful memories. I read Teaching as a Subversive Activity when it came out and, as a result of that book and others out around the same time, created an open classroom, where students asked the questions and created research projects to answer them (questions often prompted by challenging displays in the room and conversations with the teacher). So long as I was supported by the administration and protected froml the bureaucratic stupidities, it worked beautifully.

    My students had top scores on standardized tests, too, proving that intrinsic learning, collegial classrooms work.

    I was driven out of public school teaching when that principal retired and was replaced by an "old school" principal, who tolerated none of my "foolishness" and demanded that I go back to rigidly scheduled lessons out of the book, desks arranged in tidy rows, copying sentences off the board. It remains a painful memory to this day.

    It is possible to teach well in an inner city school, but the administration makes sure it doesn't happen.

  3. "better readers and writers" -- I like that goal. (I can, however, imagine all sorts of outcry -- how will you do it, how will you know you've done it, what does better mean, etc)

    In my three years of part-time teaching, my best experience was the small homeschool co-op where I adapted Nancy Atwell's _In the Middle_ idea to an 11th-12th British Lit survey course -- there were some universal requirements, like everyone had to read something by Shakespeare and had to write a literary analysis paper -- but otherwise students directed their own reading and we carried on discussion of it via dialogue journals, and they directed their own writing. There were mini-lessons on grammar, punctuation, editing, etc. Workshop time for reading and for writing and for peer editing.

    The previous year I taught the American lit class for the same age group, using a basic text, all the same assignments, etc. I had six students -- SIX! -- and I still felt them more as a group than as individuals. Not so the second year.

    Not sure how it would work with a more typical classroom size, but that's another issue.

    Nice story, Sarah.