What do you think is the lowest G.P.A. I need in order to get into a good retirement home — one of those fancy ones with never-ending soft serve ice cream and Jeopardy tournaments in the common area? How many gold stars do you think I need in order say, “I’m happy”? Oooh, most importantly, do you think if I re-take my ACT and get 2 points higher I can finally say I have purpose in the world?
Surely, these are the questions that keep teenagers angsty. There can be no other explanation.
We live in an educational climate that focuses primarily — some would say obsessively — on numbers and letters, rankings and standings. We say it’s for results. And it’s true. One can see results through numbers. But it’s time to argue for different results. It’s time to argue for a system that puts the value and benefit of the learner first. And, along the way, it’s time to argue that we can do more as teachers, parents, and citizens to create contexts, instituations, and relationships that hone in on the innate factors that motivate learners to excel.
First, we have to understand that motivation is not a dichotomy. It is not just : (a.) I’m motivated or (b.) I’m not motivated. I’ve expressed this view in previous posts, but now let’s look further.
Motivation is a continuum. If we want our students to reach their maximum potential, we have to understand each level of motivation — not just what each is but how we, as teachers, policy makers, citizens, and parents, are often stifling student potential by only focusing on the lowest levels of motivation.
Let’s consider motivation along this continuum**:
Level 0: Amotivation (Not doing it!)
Level 1: Reward/Punishment (I’ll only do it if ______, or to avoid ______)
Level 2: Guilt/Impress (I like you . . . so I’ll do it)
Level 3: Value/Benefit (I’ll do it because it will help me in some way)
Level 4: Identify (I’ll do this because it represents who I am)
Level 5: Pure Enjoyment (I’m in the flow when I do this)
I’ve discussed some of the major factors that lead to amotivation in past posts. Let’s look at the next level, the lowest end of extrinsic motivation: Level 1 — what it is, why it matters, and what to do with it.
Reward/punishment motivation involves using something external — either a tangible pleasure booster or a psychological (or physical) pain booster — to increase action. We humans are obsessively occupied by motivating to this level. Get ready because this, my beautiful people, is where most of our effort in education ends (Yep, we just got to Level 1 and we’re already done).
Real talk: Much of education puts external reward as the end of the process, the main event, rather than the means to a fulfilling end. When a student acts just to get a grade, it is because this is often our society’s expectation; We — teachers, administrators, parents, citizens — often do not think to look beyond the grades. Jill got an “A”? Sweet. Good job, Jill, you little smarty. We have 60% of our students taking A.P. classes? We are gettin’ it done. School A ranked higher on the state tests than School B? That’s where my kid is going next fall.
Pause: Curmudgeon the Critic is probably charged and ready to rally some counters at this moment, so let’s go there now. There will be arguments such as, “What the heck do you want? Mushy-gushy high-fives for good work? Sorry pansy-man, the real world doesn’t work that way. People work for money and businesses function off tangible rewards!”
No one is saying rewards are inherently bad. Or good. Rewards motivate. But here’s the issue: Rewards only motivate so long as the rewards remain there. The real problem is that our first and last resort is to dangle rewards in the context. Get the kid to pass with a B- and call it a good day’s work. But imagine if we remove the reward. If you made every assignment and task in your classroom optional, would your students still do it? Doubt it. They may have if we hadn’t killed off their intrinsic drive for learning years ago by making it all about the points, and scores, and grades.
That reward/punishment motivation is of detriment to our society became even clearer to me just today. When asking students for feedback about teaching style preferences, one student remarked, “I’d rather have teachers who tell us what’s on the tests, rather than teaching us life skills stuff.” No exaggeration. Direct quotation. I don’t blame the student. I blame the educational context in which he lives.
The other thing we have to realize is that our rewards only motivate so long as the person gives a flip about the reward. We wonder why some learners don’t push themselves in school. And yet, we only point out value in terms of getting good grades to “go to college.” Many of them could care less about the reward — or the other factors of amotivation have already been set. It’s hard to hear, “Getting at least a B in this class will help you get to college” when getting my next meal is of more immediate relevance. In truth, “What Students Really Need to Hear,” was meant for the students who stopped caring about the grades years ago. It was for the students who need to know that school can provide benefits beyond the grades.
Reward/Punishment motivation is not enough. And, our obsession with it is killing true life-long learning.
Now, it’s absurd to think that simply stripping incentives, grades, and measurements is the solution. Effectively doing so would require an entire overhaul of every school from K through College. Experience tells me it’s hard enough to get schools to agree upon the color of grass (Has anyone considered the color-blind guy’s view!?), let alone cultural changes.
This doesn’t mean that all is lost though. We can start by asking better of ourselves, no matter where we fit in educating others. Why are we really teaching or valuing item X? What matters most? And, are we willing to take the risk to teach what matters in the face of a system that promotes otherwise?
We can even start by considering how our own language sends a message to young learners about what matters in education.
When a parent asks, “How can my student get a better grade?” the wrong question has been asked.
When a teacher says, “You are smart enough to get at least a B,” the wrong message has been sent.
When a news outlet ranks schools on rigor based on A.P. enrollments, without ever stepping foot in the building, the wrong message has been sent.
How about, “What can my student do in your class to be more prepared for a good career?” How about, “You are smart enough to master this concept and truly own this knowledge — knowledge that no one can ever take from you for the rest of your life”? What about promoting schools that help students cultivate their passions and provide them unique opportunities to pursue them?
How can go beyond the lowest level in education?
— How do we help students find their own value in building resilience? Learning new content? Tackling difficult problems?
— How do we help them identify their passions and talents early (and not just in STEM), mentor them to find opportunities, and then get out of their way?
— How do we create curricula that looks beyond what will get us better test scores?
— How can we better be honest with ourselves about what matters and whether our actions match our values?
These are the questions to which we need answers. These are the answers that need every parent, teacher, and citizen’s effort. It’s time to do better. Let’s start by asking better of ourselves before asking better of others.
** These levels of motivation are derived from Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s self-determination theory. Get your research on at http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org