Searching for Sasquatch: Why unmotivated people don’t exist

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

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Meredith says:

    Have you read any of Philip Schlechty’s work on student engagement? You echo one of his points that it’s not about finding motivation, but uncovering motives and designing work for students that takes advantage of those motives.

  2. Lynn says:

    This is huge. Once an educator (and we are all educators, whether we know it or not…) fully understands this concept, he or she will never give up on anyone!

  3. Taryn says:

    I agree with the two numbers that you laid out clearly, however I do not agree with the contexts you have provided. School has created this environment, “study, get good grades,” “work hard, do well,” etc. However, this is still a form of telling a student where to go and how to go there. It appeals to extrinsic factors- success, wealth, external rewards. However, it has been recently shown that intrinsic motivating factors are much more likely to yield positive results.

  4. Danna says:

    I really like the concept, and you even cited the fact that willpower is a limited psychological resource. However, I think looking into what psychologists have to say on motivation and rewards would play into this well. There are certain rewards you cannot give people because they will end up losing all intrinsic motivation do perform menial tasks as they will continuously look for that extrinsic reward. The best motivation is intrisic, but that is so much harder to cultivate.

  5. ChangeHub says:

    Reblogged this on Change Hub.

  6. I completely agree. I just graduated from college – and I found that I “learned” the most in classes where the teacher created a good context.

    You example on letter writing was good. In my own, I found when students were allowed to pick their own topics (countries, style of writing, etc), they were much more motivated to do a “good job” and put in the extra effort.

    I wish students were taught how to channel their emotions, thoughts, and frustrations into something constructive in school…

  7. holditnow says:

    I think that one important thing that needs to be addressed is ownership. A student is least likely to be motivated to do anything if they feel they have no input into the process. They’re thinking; why are they learning to write essays in the first place? To your average student an essay is something you write not something you read. It is perceived as a labor intensive task that is only going to be consumed by the person grading it. It is considered solely a mark generator, and whether the student cares or doesn’t care about grades they go through the motions (or don’t) if they can’t see the merit in the task. I agree context has a great deal to do with how things are perceived but giving a task without any tangible benefits isn’t going to light a fire under anyone. Until you can make the task relevant and relate-able to your students it doesn’t matter how much sugar Mrs Intentional disguises the medicine with, it’s still going to be coughed back. You need to explain and illustrate why this particular piece of knowledge is good knowledge to gain. Same concept different carrot.

  8. Ventifact says:

    “Willpower is a muscle”

    I’m glad you mention this, Mr. Mielke. I appreciate the overall thrust of your essay(s), but I think the fact that willpower is a capacity that different people have in different degrees is a substantial caveat to the claim that there is no such thing as an unmotivated person.

    The nice thing about analogizing willpower to a muscle is that muscles are plastic: they can be toned, enlarged, and made more flexible through use. I suspect you’d agree that the analogy of willpower to muscle includes plasticity. I think it’s important for any person to develop this “muscle” in their own life. If we make a broad declaration that only context and never the person yield insufficient motivation, we risk ignoring the need for each person to develop their own willpower and passion.

    By the way, if we ignore the spectrum of motivational levels different people bring to their contexts, we also risk a consequence that I gather is not really your main concern: condescending or pandering to people who expect major challenges from their educational context. A person who is out of shape needs a lot of unconditional encouragement and a gentle regimen in order to start exercising at all; a serious athlete does not find this helpful. A student who is rarin’ to go may actually be demotivated when put in a situation that is well designed to motivate a [we’re not calling them] unmotivated student.

    Suppose I am a good writer, in a composition class, ready to do whatever my instructor thinks will be effective at making me an even better writer. I am capable of drafting an essay on my own, and deferring the process of obtaining instructor feedback until after the draft is complete rather than during the first writing. Do I want to burn class time listening to the instructor give feedback to the person sitting next to me while I’m trying to focus on my own essay, or do I wish that the instructor would spend our time together sharing some of her insights into writing by lecturing? Do I need the assignments to be dressed up so that they resemble academic exercises as little as possible? At some point this situation appears disingenuous (even manipulative) and understimulating, and I become demotivated.

    Again, I get the impression that this student is not your focus, and I don’t say all this to suggest that such a student should or shouldn’t be your focus. But I hope we’d agree that such a student does exist, as does the student who *is* your focus.

    If there is one genuine bone I’d pick with you, Mr. Mielke, it would be that you implicitly round up all characteristics a person might have under the notion of intrinsic character. Given any such intrinsic features of character that a person might have, it is indeed useless to try to change them (by definition). And it is probably not our place to judge people for their character, either. But there is much more to a person than intrinsic character, and we definitely should consider all this when we design educational contexts. Indeed, I think you make the point that the main event in education is, basically, to build character. Whether a given educational context will be effective for a person depends heavily on who that person is.

    1. Ventifact says:

      I think I could have made my point more succinctly by suggesting as an alternative to “there is no such thing as an unmotivated person” that there is no such thing as an unmotivatable person.

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