Picture an average teenage boy. Probably smells like stale sweat doused in a layer of Axe Body Spray. Atrocious haircut. Eyes glazed by the flashing images of Call of Duty blaring from the screen. Poster child of “whatever.” His parents, not wanting to raise a child into an adult pile of mud, want to see some motivation. So, they ask him to do the chores. Doofus-personified would rather slam his head repeatedly on a table than take out the trash and do the dishes (and he probably does just that in order to showcase the plight he suffers under such tyrannical parents). We would say he is unmotivated in this context, yes? Yes.
Now, imagine if his parents say, “If you want permission to use our car and want money to take out your girlfriend tonight, you have to take out the trash and do the dishes.” Enter: He-boy, world’s most efficient chore-technician. Dishes fly, sponges feverishly scrub, and the garbage soars to the curb dumpster. Alas, motivation. So, what changed? The boy or the context? Ding! Let’s revisit two truths found in our previous post:
1. There is no such thing as an unmotivated person.
2. There are only unmotivating contexts.
Here’s what we mean by context: Who, What, When, Why
— Who is requesting it to be done (and around whom is the task being done)
— What is the task
— When is the task being done
— Why the task is being done (the value it holds)
To illustrate, let’s take the simple scenario of a student writing an essay.
Context one: Mr. Superior, Gavin’s ELA teacher, isn’t the nicest nor most personable educator in the world. He could care less how students feel about his class or him as a person. His motto is, “Keep ’em busy” and lives by the mantra that failing students are a sign of a good ol’ bell curve. The prompt he gives is: “Write an essay arguing whether post-modern America was superior in its industry and culture compared to the decades that preceded it.” Students must write their essays outside of class on their own time. Gavin knows that Mr. Superior will be the only reader of his essay and has already parceled out grades in his mind. How motivated will Gavin be to write this essay? TBD.
Context two: Mrs. Intentional knows her students well. She makes a point to be authentic and respectful with students, holding them to a high standard, and supporting them through their mistakes. She is realistic enough to know that not everyone student will be an all-star but knows every student can at least be competent in her class. She also wants to give students a persuasive essay. The prompt she gives is: “Write a persuasive letter to a company you like or hate, encouraging them to continue or change their practices.” The letters will be written in class with coaching and support and then mailed to the actual companies. Is this context going to guarantee that Gavin is motivated to write? Not necessarily, but it’s a heck of a good start.
Think carefully about the differences in contexts:
What: Both tasks are persuasive essays, however, we can clearly see that Mrs. Intentional’s topic provides more choice and personalization (major players in the motivation game).
Who: Have you ever wanted to impress someone who was a jerk? Nope. Ever seen someone completely change their actions to impress someone they like or respect? Probably. Employees work differently when they like their boss. Students behave differently when they like their teacher — and this can include motivation.
When: Depending on how Gavin is outside of class, he may be able to do good work at home for Mr. Superior. But, if you know most students as well as I do, homework has challenges (distractions, opportunities to cheat, less effort). Don’t get all crazy-talk on me and assume I am arguing “Homework has no purpose!” It does. But it is a different context that a teacher must consider. Time of day affects motivation for two reasons: Willpower is a muscle that can get exhausted and usually different times of day adjust the rest of the context.
Why: Context 1 has one audience and purpose: Impress the teacher. Context 2 serves an authentic purpose in persuading a real audience. When the person finds value and benefit in the task, motivation increases.
When considering the “Why,” we have to face a reality though: It is possible that Gavin could give a crud about writing…period. Neither Mr. Superior nor Mrs. Intentional may ever get an essay from him. It is not, however, a flaw in his character. It is a feature of facing enough demotivating contexts to bias his perception of value. Never fear, though. The concept of personal value is strongly influenced by what educators do and our next blog will explore just that: What causes “amotivation.”
As teachers, parents, bosses, mentors, we must look not at the flaw in someone’s character. We must look for the flaws in the context. We cannot change people, nor can we motivate them. We can change how people see the who, what, when, and why and thus create contexts that enhance motivation. That is our challenge.
In the meantime, consider how much context defines your motivation. Pick any task you do and adjust one aspect of the context and see what happens (or what you think would happen). Post a comment and let’s dialogue people! (y’know, so long as the context suits you)
Copyright Chase Mielke, 2014