Hundreds of yawning, red-eyed students are crammed in pairs, stretching the school gym. A dull hum, like distant locusts, murmurs the space as pencils scratch hundreds of little bubbles. It’s state-test day, and there is an air of anxiety among more than just the students. We teachers have one thought on our mind: “How are they going to perform this year?”
And then we spot them. Those kids. The ones who opted out of effort and are enjoying a rare, uninterrupted nap. Their bubble sheets are bare, or randomly filled, or perhaps forming a shape (most likely a penis or a middle finger). With a clench of the jaw, a deep exhale, and most likely an unspoken expletive, we stare in silence at the kids whose scores may destroy our performance ratings, our reputation, and our energy the next year.
One word comes to mind for such kids:
Those kids are lazy. They are unmotivated. They don’t care about their future. We berate them in our head and chastise their entire identity. But, little do we know, we are making a fatal error in doing so — one that has actually created the student who could care less about test scores.
Here is a sobering truth:
There is no such thing as an unmotivated student.
(Feel free to read that again, if your sudden scoff made you dizzy).
There are only unmotivating contexts.
Let that soak for a moment. Now, see for yourself:
. . . . .
Pop Quiz (and you thought those ended in secondary school):
Rate the scenarios below on the following scale:
(0) Psssh! I do not do this.
(1) I do this for a tangible reward or to avoid punishment.
(2) I do this so I don’t feel guilty or to impress someone.
(3) I do this because I can see purpose in doing it for my future.
(4) I do this because it is a part of my identity; it’s just who I am.
(5) I do this for the fulfillment of the experience — I’d do it without pay or anyone around me.
1. Staying late at work (or after class)
2. Cleaning the toilet
3. Taking extra classes or training related to my career
4. Paying taxes
6. Reading a book
7. Donating to charity
8. Playing chess
9. Learning a new language
How’d you do? Did you realize how lazy you are and how much you don’t care about your future? Of course not. It would be absurd to suggest that not playing chess is a sign of future unemployment, drug abuse, and unwanted pregnancy. And yet, we are often quick to label a student’s character in such a way when he or she is unmotivated in the classroom — or the employee at work. Just because you don’t do something doesn’t mean you are a lazy person. All it means is that the context does not motivate you.
The same is true of our students and employees. Just because a student does not want to take a test or read a book or build a styrofoam mobile does not mean he or she is lazy. It simply means that the context is not motivating. And whose job is it to create motivating contexts in school? It’s our job. Teachers.
We teachers have a hard time accepting this sometimes. It is easy to see how ludicrous the L-word sounds in other fields. If no one goes to see a blockbuster movie, we may say it’s because the director or screenwriter or publicists didn’t do a good job; any of which may be true. But, no great director has ever said, “People would have loved that movie if they weren’t so friggin’ lazy.” Terrible sales of a product are not the fault of the consumer. And yet, a student not reading To Kill a Mockingbird is a sign of poor character or crappy parents (or Lord help us: BOTH!).
But we’re wrong. There is no such thing as unmotivated people. There are only unmotivating contexts.
So, let’s consider two questions: one common and useless, one rare and powerful (more on this soon).
Useless: How do we motivate people? (We can’t).
Useful: How do we create contexts that are motivating? (We can.)
Over the next few posts, I’ll be arguing that our common conception of motivation is not only wrong but destructive in creating great learners, great citizens, great employees. In the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts on the useful question above. Think work. Think learning. Thing your day-to-day life.
You better comment and read the posts-to-come or I’ll tell everyone how lazy you are.
Copyright Chase Mielke, 2014