As an English teacher, basketball coach, and golf coach, I spend a good deal of time thinking and learning about motivation. What will get my kids to try their best, work hard, and care about individual growth as well as the improvement of the group. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink offers a great look into how motivation has changed from a rewards-based system to a need for intrinsic motivation.

I like to take notes of page numbers and quotes that stand out to me, and I found more than usual to take note of while reading this one. Here’s a little glimpse into my summer front-porch reading.

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The basic idea is that rewarding someone for doing an activity, that activity becomes work. We “lose intrinsic interest for the activity” (8). In order to motivate people in creative and intellectual tasks, they need to be engaged and motivated from within. The rewards/punishment system of motivation “rests on the belief that work is not inherently enjoyable – which is precisely why we must coax people with external rewards and threaten them with outside punishment” (30). I picture the lack of joy and engagement on some students’ faces, and this is exactly why.

So what do we need to do instead?

“Humans have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when this drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives” (73). Think about how so many classrooms and schools are run with a philosophy exactly opposite of this. We limit autonomy, we reward students with grades and more, and we often fear connectivity. It is no wonder we see students bored in class and just doing enough to get by. That is what our system of rewards teaches them to do! We have narrowed down our standards to encourage mastery, but “only engagement can produce mastery” (111). It is time to reengage our students in meaningful work that helps them connect to the world in their own way.

“First, consider nontangible rewards. Praise and positive feedback are much less corrosive than cash and trophies.” This will help to increase intrinsic motivation. “Second, provide useful information” (67). Give positive comments and provide specific feedback to our students.

And now for the hardest hitter of all. “We’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement” (174). Let that sink in a second. Instead of offering students appropriate challenges that stretch an individual’s thinking, we are rewarding students for doing just enough.

We need to help our students to answer the questions that they all want to know: “Why am I learning this? How is it relevant to the world I live in now?” (179).

Helping my students reach an authentic audience with their writing is one way that I am making a change. Writing pieces are not just for me, but for the world. Videos are to be published after a script is crafted. Presentations are to be presented to an audience, and recorded to be shared to the world. That is where we see kids make connections and find passions. Where kids see a need in the world and do something to fill that void.

That is motivation.


4 thoughts on “Motivation

  1. I’m all for authentic experiences, and finding a real audience is a great way for some disciplines to achieve this. I fear, though, that “real audience” could be over simplified to “post online,” and if too much of the world (all students) starts doing this, will the audience just lose interest?

    1. You are absolutely right! It has to be a fear that many teachers will think that they are doing their jobs just by having students post online. The student must find the purpose that suits their cause the best. If that is to publish an e-magazine and share it with the school, that should be the goal. If it is to activity books on saving sea turtles, that should be the goal. My hope is that we can create autonomy over the task in order for the students to decide who their audience is and what is the most effective way to reach them. But if our goal is to “post online” we might as well just be handing it in to the teacher.

  2. I loved your final paragraph: “Writing pieces are not just for me, but for the world. Videos are to be published after a script is crafted. Presentations are to be presented to an audience, and recorded to be shared to the world.” This is something I, too, am going to try to change this year. How great would it be if students were contributing to YouTube with their own “How To” videos or even to (gasp!) Wikipedia with information! It’s hard to imagine how this will work when we, as English teachers, are challenged with standards and department/district resistance but I think that this change, in some form, has to happen. Great post!

    1. I agree! Can you imagine how seriously kids would take their Wikipedia assignment? There would be a great sense of ownership, and kids would WANT to become experts in order to make sure their page was correct. When we treat kids like they can be experts, they will want to be experts!

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