George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's Note: This piece was adapted from Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond by Larry Ferlazzo, available March 21, 2015 from Routledge.

There are three things to remember about education. The first is motivation. The second one is motivation. The third one is motivation. (former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell)

When students feel more motivated to learn, they perform better academically (PDF, 253KB), improve classroom behavior, and gain a higher sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, data -- and the direct experience of many educators -- shows that lack of motivation affects many of our students, and appears to increase each year from middle school through high school. Students can demonstrate this lack of engagement by withholding effort and by "voting with their feet" through rising chronic absenteeism as they get older (PDF, 1.4MB), and chronic absenteeism is among the highest predictors of dropping out of school.

How can we respond effectively to this motivation crisis?

Conditions for Growth

One way to is to "double-down" on the common belief in the power of extrinsic motivation -- bonuses, points, stars, etc. -- and its equivalents in the punishment arena.

I'd offer a different perspective, one best characterized by Sir Ken Robinson, author and speaker on education issues, who has said:

Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow. . . the plant grows itself. What you can do is provide the conditions for growth.

One of the key ways to "provide the conditions for growth" or, as the National Research Council put it, "create a set of circumstances," is by emphasizing intrinsic motivation (choosing to do an activity in order to gain pleasure from or in order to help achieve an internalized goal) instead of extrinsic motivation (doing a specific behavior in order to gain an outside reward).

Before reviewing what those conditions for growth might be, let's quickly review some of the overwhelming research on reward undermining that demonstrates why a reliance on extrinsic motivation should not be on that list:

  • Extrinsic motivation can be effective over the short term in encouraging mechanical tasks and compliance, but tends to be destructive in advancing creative and higher-order thinking.
  • Extrinsic motivators, though possibly effective in the short term to gain compliance to do a task, tend to diminish intrinsic motivation for that same activity over the long-term (PDF, 4.8MB).
  • A recent study of 200,000 employees found that that those who were more intrinsically motivated were three times more engaged in their work than those who focused more on external rewards.

These critiques, however, do not mean that extrinsic motivation has no role in the home, classroom, or workplace. Even Dr. Edward Deci (perhaps the world's foremost researcher on intrinsic motivation) recognizes that there are going to be times when carrots or sticks may be needed to encourage or stop a behavior because of the immediacy of a challenging situation. As he told The New York Times:

If you're under a lot of stress or in a bad place, then having a conversation at that moment is not going to work. But, he emphasized, don't let the situation end there. "You need to sit down the next afternoon when everyone's calm, talk it through from both sides, then discuss ways so the behavior doesn't happen again," he said. "Always use the blow up as a learning moment the next day."

In addition, author Daniel Pink discusses the need for baseline rewards -- the basic and fair "compensation" that we must all receive in order to have any motivation at all. In school, that might mean a caring teacher, a clean classroom, and engaging lessons.

In other words, extrinsic motivators have their place, but they must also be kept in their place.

So if extrinsic motivation is not one of those above-mentioned conditions for growth, what is on the list?

Intrinsic Motivation

Many, if not most, researchers suggest that four elements combine to nurture intrinsic motivation (PDF, 65KB):

  1. Autonomy: having a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done
  2. Competence: feeling that one has the ability to be successful in doing it
  3. Relatedness: doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others, and feel cared about by people whom they respect
  4. Relevance: the work must be seen by students as interesting and valuable to them, and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future

A challenge to us educators is to help our students motivate themselves through cultivating these four qualities and to counter what the National Research Council suggests -- that these four elements become less and less visible as students move into secondary school.

Years ago, I lived in an elevated house at the bottom of a small hill. It had a storm drain on the street in front of it. During the summer, I would pour wood chips in the small dirt area between the sidewalk and the curb, and during heavy winter rainstorms, the drain would get clogged up with debris floating downhill. Water would go over the curb, and all the wood chips would float away, leaving a muddy area. Each year, my wife would strongly suggest I plant grass or bushes in that area so that it could withstand the water, and each year I instead chose the short-term solution of wood chips -- it appeared easier to me and seemed to work most of the time -- until the bad weather hit. I chose this solution even though planting grass and bushes would have saved me time and money over the long term, made the neighborhood look better and, in fact, would have probably attacked the cause of the problem by reducing the amount of debris clogging the drain. I had other things on my "to do" list that I felt were more important, and I was more comfortable with a familiar problem than with a solution that was new to me -- having a "green thumb" was not on my resume.

We can't rid ourselves of the wood chips of extrinsic motivation until we know how to create the conditions in which nice grass and bushes will grow. In my next post, I'll share specific strategies on how we do just that in the classroom.

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Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I love to create intrinsic reward. I feel there are some variables/tools that are very useful for this.
The first variable/tool while not the most important can be taught at all grade levels involves the "proper dynamics of approaching new mental work like academics" . I feel children come from very different environments and bring with them, very different amounts of knowledge, skills, and yes, anxieties or higher average stress. I feel this creates many problems for some students in approaching new mental work, especially for those students with higher layers of average stress they bring with them to school. I feel this tends to feed off onto very improper pace and intensity in approaching mental work that exacerbates their already higher average stress. Unlike our present belief of just trying hard, I feel as our pace and intensity in approaching a mental work exceeds our immediate knowledge/skills mental frames, we create more or raise our average stress exponentially, thus hurting more our intrinsic reward for learning.
I feel we should teach all students through modeling and instruction how to approach new mental work more slowly at first and allowing our knowledge and experience to create our pace and intensity. We can be very silly in the lower grades and be more instructive in the higher grades but still get the point across.
A second, more important one to be taught to fourth graders and older is a more correct definition and use of average stress. We need to show students how our average stress is made up of many layers of mental work from past, present, future, experiences, problems, needs, concerns, plans, conscience of others that take up real mental energy leaving us with less mental energy to think, learn, and enjoy learning new mental work. This forces many intelligent, hardworking students work two or three times as hard to receive the same mental reward as other students.
We need to show students how they can begin to slowly approach their lives more delicately to begin understanding, resolving, and making some change in some faulty weight or value that may have created some layers of mental frictions from past, present, future concerns. This enables students to begin more permanently reducing layers of average stress.
We cannot simply relax or use meditation, for we are only temporarily removing the mental energy to those layers. When we approach a new mental work, we simply recharge those layers.
There some very useful in class techniques I use in addition to those above
1. I provide breaks after about 50 minutes leaving 10 minutes of free time to regroup and relax.
2. I try to individualize my instruction to provide lessons that do not exceed the immediate frustration tolerances for students with less presently developed skills.
3. I try to use the more mental work instruction at the beginning and use practice and other toward the end of the lesson.
4. I try to use my personality of more silliness, humor, slowness of pace when teaching students and using much one-on-one and humor during practice time.
5. I use a quiet Canter Variation with checks and reinforcers on the hour for younger students accompanied by my ease of spirit, kind, caring teaching, and humorous one-on-one times. This enables me to separate the need to management from my more important desire to create more peace and intrinsic reward in my students.
6. For older students, the two major cognitive tools expressed above are also accompanied by my own modeling of the very good things I teach in my younger students with the exception of much more admonition of continually although slowly changing and improving their lives, freeing them of the myth of genetics and creating much hope for long-term improvement for years to come.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

oh, I feel in the early grades when teaching reading and writing, the pace really needs to be slowed more.
For reading, this is very abstract skill made up of multiple mental work of decoding, visualizing, learning new words in print, organizing with prior knowledge, and hopefully "enjoying the process". We need to teach more slowly the phonics and help students slowly learn through practice and our support how to use those phonics to discover new words in print using their social vocabulary.
As for writing, we need to help those younger students not work so fast but learn to see the beauty of the writing by teaching the skills of correct manuscript and cursive writing. We need to be at the board and showing with more ease, care, and somewhat slowly even humorously, the art of writing using the lines and dashes as wonderful guides. -For more intrinsic reward, we need kindly reinforce our students not to press down hard with their pencils and not grip the pencils so tightly. Problems in this area really hurt many boys whose higher average stress creates higher muscle tension creating a tighter grip and more pressure on their pencils/pens thus hurting writing/motivation much more so.

Ryan B's picture

This is a great post. Extrinsic motivators only work for so good, for so long. Creating intrinsic motivation is the my ultimate goal in my classes. I am really want to improve that aspect of my teaching. I naturally have a really high level of intrinsic motivation. This I feel has made it difficult for me to relate to students that do not have this. Creating an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation is definitely one of my weaknesses as a teacher. This article helped put some ideas in my head for what I can start to incorporate into my classes.

Merlin's picture

Informative post it's the responsibility of both teachers and parents to create condition for motivating students. I was able to understand the importance of intrinsic motivation.

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Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

My learning theory with many applications will go to all on request. It will offer us much more hope for motivating students from within using cognitive tools to continually changer and improve their lives and ours

Rick Leib's picture

This article interests me because I am trying to wrap my head around on how to release more responsibility to my students in a high school project based program.

Brenda's picture

While taking a master gardener course years ago, the teacher said "Feed the soil-not the plants" as a concept for creating an ideal growing environment. There is certainly an application for the concept in the classroom as well.

Linh Nguyen's picture

Thanks for the post Larry. It'd be interesting to see how certain tech tools can help students with motivation. Giving them autonomy is certainly one aspect of it.

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