Why do people do what they do? What makes us tick? Why are some students “highly motivated” and others are, well, not? How can teachers help students be motivated? If you’re hoping for easy answers to these questions, you’re probably hoping for the unlikely and you’re definitely looking in the wrong place. But I found some interesting tidbits about motivation that might be helpful or at least enlightening.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic
Intrinsically motivated learners are more willing to engage and will experience greater enjoyment from what they learn. Often young children exhibit intrinsic motivation to learn—maybe it’s the novelty and excitement of everything at school in the early elementary grades.
I interviewed my nine-year-old brother (4th grade in the fall) about what motivates him at school. His answer, “Recess. I know that once I get all my work done I get to play so I do my work faster so I can play faster.” I asked where his motivation comes from and he answered that a little bit comes from himself, a lot from his parents and his teacher.
Regarding why he’s motivated by his teacher he said, “If I get it wrong, sometimes he gets sort of mad. He’s 28 so he hasn’t had a lot of experience in the teaching realm.” (Guess we can’t pull one over on a nine-year-old.)
When I asked if it was more the learning or the grades that motivated him, he said, “Half and half—I know if I get good grades, I’ll do good in school. It’s nice to learn stuff because then you’ll always get good grades.” (A little bit of circular logic, but he’s nine.) At this point, my 17-year-old brother interjected with, “It’s cooler to learn something all by yourself.” This coming from the soon to be senior who openly refuses to care about anything academic.
Often, the motivation shifts extrinsically as students mature—as their cognitive development allows them to set more long term goals, they can weigh whatever they’re asked to do in context of how much it will advance their goal. Learning becomes more a means to an end rather than an inherently enjoyable pastime. In high school, part of my motivation was definitely getting good enough grades to get into the university I wanted. There’s no harm in that.
Extrinsic motivation isn’t a bad thing. I think it’s just more difficult to harness for students who don’t seem to want anything or haven’t figured out what they want. Like my aforementioned 17-year-old brother, who, during his interview, explained why he is motivated to get good grades: “If Dad is angry with me I get very little of what I want. And when he’s not, I get more of what I want.”
Rather than learning for the sake of learning, he learns to get good enough grades to satisfy our parents. He says he doesn’t care about school at all, but he often makes references to things he’s learned in art history and AP European history. (Gotta love it when the seemingly apathetic teenage brother enjoys schooling you on Rousseau’s artistic career.)
American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in which the individual could only progress as his basic needs were met. One concerned with finding food and shelter cannot easily be induced to meditate on the meaningfulness of his existence. Similarly, there is a hierarchy of learning—people in different psychological states seek different kinds of information.
For example, individuals at the lowest level seek coping information in order to meet their basic needs. Information that is not directly connected to helping a person meet his or her needs in a very short time span is simply left unattended. Individuals at the safety level need helping information. They seek to be assisted in seeing how they can be safe and secure. Enlightening information is sought by individuals seeking to meet their belongingness needs. Quite often this can be found in books or other materials on relationship development. Empowering Why do people do what they do? What makes us tick? Why are some students “highly motivated” and others are, well, not? How can teachers help students be motivated? If you’re hoping for easy answers to these questions, you’re probably hoping for the unlikely and you’re definitely looking in the wrong place. But I found some interesting tidbits about motivation that might be helpful or at least enlightening.
If we’re giving our students information incongruent with the level on which they’re thinking, there is no motivation for them to internalize that information. It’s irrelevant to them and their situation. (Or so they think, but really, in terms of their learning, what they think is all that actually counts.)
Spontaneity vs. Structure
“Effort is felt only where there is a conflict of interests in the mind.” –William James, The Principles of Psychology
Regarding what he calls “the rhythmic claims of freedom and discipline,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative.”
The balance of preserving a student’s innate interest in a subject while enabling them to move beyond their rudimentary abilities in that subject tests a teacher’s true mettle. Persevering once the initial enchantment wears off is a challenge I’m sure all of us have faced. (I was very gung-ho on learning to play the guitar… until I had blisters on my fingers and still couldn’t play anything cool.) Teachers who can keep the spark alight while stoking the fire deserve the results they get—students who pursue and attain mastery with enthusiasm. Any teachers or parents out there with advice on this one?
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