HELPING STUDENTS MOTIVATE THEMSELVES
MINDA T. SERRANO
A teacher thinks: I work so hard at trying to get these kids motivated. Some are, but so many aren’t. They just seem to want to get by— if that. I try to encourage them— I’m their biggest cheerleader! But it can get so tiring. I feel like I’m pushing a rope with some of my students. Why can’t they just want to achieve instead of having to be pushed into it? How many of us educators have said, felt, or thought something similar? Strategies that teachers will often use in these efforts to motivate students include offering incentives and rewards— "If you read a certain number of books, you’ll get a prize!"— or cheerleading relentlessly— "Good job, Karen!" It’s also not unusual for teachers to just "give up" on some students— "They just don’t want to learn!" One of the lessons community organizers learn is that you might be able to threaten, cajole, badger, or bribe someone to do something over the short-term, but getting someone to do something beyond a very, very short timeframe is a radically different story.
Organizers believe that you cannot really motivate anybody else. However, you can help people discover what they can use to motivate themselves. This is very similar to what Edward Deci, one of the premier researchers and authorities on intrinsic motivation, wrote: "The proper question is not, 'how can people motivate others?' but rather, "how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?" When we are trying to motivate students— often unsuccessfully— the energy is coming from us. When we help students discover their own motivation, and challenge them to act on it, more of the energy is coming from them. In fact, this perspective is in keeping with the original roots of the word "motivation." It comes from "motive" which, in the 15th century, meant "that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way." Community organizers call it the difference between irritation— pushing people to do something you want them to do— and agitation— challenging them to act on something they have identified as important in their lives.
Rewards can deliver a short-term boost— just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off— and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project. Researchers believe this loss of intrinsic motivation happens because contingent rewards— if you do this, then you’ll get that— force people to give up some of their autonomy. Rewards (and punishments) have been found to be effective, however, in getting people to do mechanical and routine work that can be accomplished simply. For example, they can result in employees working faster on an assembly line or, in the classroom, getting students to make basic changes in their behavior. However, rewards can be destructive in advancing anything that requires higher-order thinking. Of course, we all expect and need "baseline rewards." These are the basics of adequate "compensation." At school, these might include students expecting fair grading, a caring teacher who works to provide fairly engaging lessons, or a clean classroom. If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims. None of these points mean that students cannot be recognized and celebrated for their successes. The key is not holding it out as a "carrot," but instead, providing it as an unexpected "bonus." The word "incentives" comes from incendere, which means "to kindle." The dictionary says that "to kindle" means "to start a fire burning." The idea is not to tell students that they will die from the cold or from being eaten by wolves if they do not start a fire right now and right here and in this way. Nor is the idea to say that, if they do what we tell them, they will get an extra bag of marshmallows to toast. Instead, the goal can be to find out where they want to set their fire and why, and perhaps help them learn how to use matches or a flint, and give them advice on the best place to find some dry wood.
Numerous studies have shown that caring relationships with teachers can help build resiliency (the capacity to persevere and overcome challenges) among children. By learning about student interests, teachers can also help connect what is being taught in the classroom to students’lives and discover their short-and-longterm goals. Boring lessons will not assist students to develop their intrinsic motivation to learn. That does not mean, however, that teachers have to put on costumes and become entertainers. It can, however, suggest that teachers consider keeping lecturing to a minimum and, instead, use many of the teaching strategies that have been found to be more effective for student learning.
The author is Teacher II at Natividad High School