As Dropout Nation readers already know, your editor has some strong thoughts about the myth of the unmotivated student held by far too many inside and outside of education; the problem isn’t the kids, but the years of educational malpractice and neglect that transform bright young minds into adolescents looking to escape from poor instruction and curriculum.
In this latest piece in this collection on reforming instruction in American public education, Contributing Editor Steve Peha discusses some of the instructional practices that hinder curiosity and student achievement. Read, ponder and offer your own thoughts.
When kids are little, they seem to love school. They’re also very willing to please; there’s hardly anything they won’t at least try to accomplish. But as they get older and the difficulty of school work increases, some remain highly-motivated while others become less-motivated to finish school.
The difference between kids who are self-motivated and those who aren’t is dramatic. So much so that the motivation problem—even though it doesn’t show up explicitly on a test or a report card—may be one of the most important problems we need to solve in our schools.
As important as we all know motivation is, we don’t seem motivated to understanding how it works or improving it in our classrooms. For the most part, we just take what we get. In general, kids who do better in school are more motivated than those who don’t. But this observation gives us little leverage on the problem.
It’s a serious problem, too. One reason why kids drop of out of school is a lack of motivation to continue. For a variety of reasons, school simply becomes less important than something else. Along the way, less motivated kids are less engaged in class and less likely to do their homework, which makes them less likely to succeed.
We know motivation is a big part of student success, but we don’t seem to have a solid game plan for how to deal with it—unless you call nagging a game plan. We bug kids about paying attention in class and getting their work turned in on time; occasionally we offer small incentives or threaten to mete out minor penalties. But we know these things don’t work very well.
Some teachers can motivate kids simply by the force of their personalities. These teachers are rare but they do exist. Some teachers use elaborate reward and punishment systems. These work to a certain extent but require management on the teachers’ part and sometimes have unintended negative consequences. Finally, some teachers are fortunate to teach classes kids are more inclined to like. Kids seem much more motivated to take Media Production or Yearbook than they do to take Biology or World History.
Each of these approaches to motivation relies on an external circumstance: a charismatic teacher, meaningful rewards and appropriate punishments, inherently interesting subject matter. These are all examples of external motivators. What we’d really like, however, is for kids to be internally or self-motivated. If they were, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about how to keep them motivated day after day—especially in classes like Biology or World History.
Motivation From Inside Out
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink points to the Self-Determination Theory formulated by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. Although it is generally applies to the workplace, it also relates to what happens in schools. The aspects of this theory include:
- Competence. Imagine going to work every day and not being able to do your job. Imagine being perpetually incompetent. Would that raise or lower your motivation to work? Now think about it the other way around. Imagine going to work every day and having what it takes to do your job well. Competence is a big internal motivator. But for kids who start school behind, or who fall behind later on, school becomes a perpetual lesson in incompetence, with a resulting loss of motivation in situations where many need it most. Finding the right level of challenge for learners is vital to optimizing their growth. When just about everything you’re doing is over your head, a sense of hopelessness or helplessness creeps into your thinking, and self-motivation is pushed out. We have to have kids working at the right level of challenge so they can experience competence at the same time that they are experiencing new learning.
- Autonomy. Human beings seem to benefit from a certain amount of independence. In school, of necessity, we control much of what kids do. But often we control things so much, there’s little reason for kids to bring their own self-control to the challenges of their academic lives. Autonomy in this case doesn’t mean total freedom or complete freedom of choice. It means that kids have reasonable and responsible degrees of freedom over tools, time, technique, and task. When we give kids a reasonable and responsible range of choices over the work they do and how they do it, they exercise more self-control and develop more self-motivation. We often say that we want our kids to learn to make good choices. But this can’t happen if we make all their choices for them. Autonomy is a generator of self-motivation, and we tend to take it away from kids as they enter secondary school, exactly the time when they begin to need it most.
- Relatedness. While we all have needs to make some choices on our own, most of us don’t like feeling alone. Feeling disconnected from others, or excluded from a group, is de-motivating. If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know how easily you can motivate yourself to contribute to the goals of a team you feel proud to belong to. Unfortunately, school is almost always an individual sport. There aren’t many opportunities built in for people to work together toward a shared result. Of course, there are always social groupings outside the classroom that include some kids and exclude others. But if kids don’t feel a strong sense of relatedness to the academic culture of a school, they can lose their intrinsic motivation to achieve academically.
If you think about the way we treat low-performing kids, you can see why they might never develop the internal strength they need to make up ground and succeed in school. First, they’re usually working on work they can’t do; they rarely experience competence. Second, we control almost every aspect of what they do and how they do it; by virtue of their low academic performance we take away many of the freedoms afforded to other students. Third, low-performing kids often self-isolate from the mainstream; or, in many cases, we isolate them deliberately by pulling them out of regular classes.
Why Self-Motivation Matters
School is designed so that self-motivation doesn’t matter very much—or at least that’s the value judgment we communicate to our students. Kids are heavily controlled and only a favored few experience consistent competence or feelings of true relatedness. This is the natural state of affairs. Rather than creating environments designed to strengthen intrinsic motivation, school is designed to weaken it, and to strengthen kids’ dependence on external motivating factors so they can be more easily controlled. This aspect of school probably hurts almost all students, but it has an especially significant downside for low-performing kids.
Kids performing below grade level are behind. It may seem at times that they are not that far behind, and that if they just “applied themselves”, they could catch up. If they just tried a little harder, we think to ourselves, they might make it. But where do we think that extra bit of “try” will come from? By the language we use, we obviously recognize that effort is a function of self-motivation. Yet we do just about everything we can to reduce the capacity of students—especially at-risk students—to develop self-motivation.
Think about how much internal motivation a new middle school student might need if he entered sixth grade a couple of grade levels behind in math and reading. Here’s a kid who has probably been learning at a rate of 75 percent of standard each year. Now, to catch up for high school, this student may have to learn at a rate of 150 percent of standard for three years in a row—twice as fast as he has ever learned in his life. It’s not just a little bit of effort that’s required here. This student has to maintain a blistering pace over several years in a row, something he’s never done before in his life.
This is why motivation matters so much. It’s the key to keeping most kids on track. It’s also an essential component in giving those who fall behind even the slimmest chance of catching up. When school is consistently de-motivating, or when all attempts to motivate students are of the external variety, valuable internal motivation is often lost—and many of our kids are lost right along with it.
But How Do We Do It?
Helping kids build internal motivation is counter to the nature of traditional schooling. In the traditional model of education, we attempt to educate kids through an authority-driven approach characterized by a range of external controls. In most cases, we do this through a combination of limited choice and the use of reward and punishment systems. Many children do well in this type of environment. But many do not.
This is how school is designed by default, so we shouldn’t make light of the fact that changing an environment designed to function via external motivation into an environment where we help kids build internal motivation is a difficult task. But it’s also an essential task, one we must take on if we want kids—especially at-risk kids—to make good progress in school.
Here are a few things we can do:
- Praise the effort, not the result. If effort is so important to us, if we wish kids would put more of it into their work, why not praise them for it? Why not shift at least some of our assessment and interactions to the type and quality of the effort kids demonstrate? The advantage of this is that it can be applied successfully to students of all ability levels in tasks of all levels of difficulty. Everyone can muster a little more effort. And everyone can improve by doing so.
- Work with what’s there, not with what’s missing. All kids have positive qualities and essential strengths that help them learn—even the kids who don’t seem to learn very much. Taking a strengths-based approach can make a big difference. Here’s a useful guideline: if you can’t find a strength in a student, you’re giving that student the wrong work to do. Every kid has strengths. They just don’t show up in all situations.
- Meet kids where they are. With all the pressure these days to get kids ready for tests, there’s a sense in many classrooms that kids have to be where we want them to be. While this is an important aspiration, it requires a basic responsibility on our part. In order to get kids over the line, we have to start by meeting them where they are and moving them up in gradual, logical steps. We can’t just put a standard on the board and tell kids they need to meet it. We can’t just ask kids to meet us where we are; we have to begin by meeting them where they are.
- Provide a reasonable range of responsible choices. Somewhere, within all the inflexible scheduling and assigning we do for kids, we can surely carve out some elements where meaningful degrees of choice are possible. This need not be free choice—and probably shouldn’t be in most cases—rather, we should provide all students with some form of guided choice based on a small set of options we feel would be most valuable.
- Teach kids to assess the quality of their work and behavior: We’d all like to see kids taking more ownership of their work and behavior. One of the best ways to do this is to give them some responsibility for assessing these things. With small amounts of training, kids can become quite accurate at determining their performance. They can then take more personal responsibility for how they perform in school.
- Keep kids working at the right level of challenge: Keeping kids working at the right level of challenge means differentiating instruction. Many subjects—especially at the secondary level—are not set up for this, and few teachers who have the opportunity to differentiate have the talent and experience to do it well. As with so many of the issues listed here, this one affects students at all ability levels. It also connects with important ideas like teaching kids self-assessment, giving them responsible degrees of choice, meeting kids where they are, and so on. It is probably the single most important issue in teaching. Even though it is difficult, it is still worthy of our attention.
- Use goal setting. Helping kids set explicit goals for their performance and behavior gives them tangible targets to shoot for. While a goal may start out as an external motivator, it quickly becomes an internal motivation, especially when we teach kids how to assess their own progress and potential completion.
- Provide actionable feedback via constructive criticism. In order to improve, learners need feedback they can work with. They can’t work with feedback like “B-minus” or “This idea needs more support.” Feedback has to be actionable. That is, the student has to be able to take action on it. Knowing that an idea needs more support doesn’t help a student take action when the student obviously didn’t know how to add the required support in the first place. True constructive criticism carries with it the information the learner needs to construct a solution to the problem identified.
This is a long list of things that school is not designed to provide. Yet it is precisely because school is designed in this way that so many kids fail. This isn’t to say that the failure of kids can be connected solely to the culture and structure of their schooling. But we could make significant progress on many of the most serious problems kids have if we made changes to school that supported, rather than sapped, intrinsic motivation.
Again and again, we must come back to the most basic realization that we cannot force kids to learn. We can command but they need not follow our orders. Everything for kids in school is a choice. And each choice has to be motivated in some way. When we ignore internal motivation, or we rely primarily on coercive reward and punishment approaches as tools of external motivation, we get less out of kids as time passes because they tend to give us less as time goes by. As school gets harder, they become hardened, too.
Motivation is a challenge for almost all kids. But it’s especially challenging for at-risk kids. They’re behind, sometimes far behind. Being behind is, in and of itself, de-motivating. Without sufficient internal motivation, these kids often find themselves on the path to dropping out. We can pretend that our efforts to motivate them from the outside will be successful. But ultimately, especially as kids reach young adulthood, the pushing has to come from within. Rather than pushing kids, we would do better to create school cultures and structures that supported kids in developing the capacity to go the distance on their own.