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The (perceived) Problem with External Motivation

Posted on October 25, 2012 by Christa Flores under Uncategorized
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As educators we dance a fine line around motivating students to do good work. People differ in their opinions on the matter, but we all offer some kind of symbol to our students of work well done. Some give awards and medals, some stickers, some just a warm smile and pat on the back, others just high marks. There is nothing inherently wrong with external motivators, in fact they are essential to life. Not too long ago in our species’ past, if you searched your environment vigorously for brightly colored, non-bitter (bitter can mean toxic) sources of sugar or protein, you may get rewarded by finding a nice tree full of fruit or a patch of edible tubers. Those are important external rewards, no one would deny. If you sat in your cave and did not take risks to find new food stuffs, you would probably have starved. Humans are complex, however, and we often use a series of symbolic gestures to represent what was once tangible external rewards. Take for instance, the use of credit cards and paper money to represent the work of hunting and gathering. When we shifted to a more urban and industrial system of labor division, our work efforts did not directly result in the acquisition of the basics of sustenance. Instead, humans have the rare, and perhaps unique (don’t tell my primatologist friends studying ape language), ability to be creative and think symbolically. As a result, humans can use symbolic objects (money) or systems (credit) to acquire the food/water/shelter/mates we used to have to pursue directly. Income, in the form of a paycheck, has replaced the real external motivators needed to survive.

Studies done such as those by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan of the Department of Psychology at the University of Rochester, show that “understanding of human motivation requires a consideration of innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.” Therefore, goal setting and the pursuit of a goal is more likely when the conditions to entertain that goal include the feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness to that goal. No one denies that good grades, a good paycheck won’t motivate a person to do a “good job,” but it will feel like work as long as the external reward sends the message that an external reward is necessary for the work to be done. According to a great book I read recently called Drive by Daniel Pink, external rewards suggest to the receiver, that the activity being rewarded was difficult, perhaps disagreeable and maybe even discomforting, therefore payment is due. Play, on the other hand, may be equally challenging yet the reward is interwoven throughout the activity as the worker experiences joy, engagement and whimsey. No one who plays hard ever questions the value of play. To drive the point home, take for instance the economic model of “pick your own strawberries.” My grandmother and my father had to pick produce for a living and it was back breaking, disagreeable work. Fast forward a generation and I laugh at myself as I pay a farmer to “allow me” to pick strawberries as a recreational activity on a Saturday morning. I give money to the farmer to do labor, he would otherwise have to pay for, and yes it is still back breaking, but because I am not getting paid a meager wage to do it, its super fun.

As educators, we can think of grades as being the precursor to the adult equivalent to a good paycheck. If you get good grades (especially in highly valued areas of study, such as engineering and medicine) you are more likely to get the next level of extrinsic rewards, a high paying job. The adult paycheck links more directly to the acquisition of tangible external rewards, such as nutrient dense food, a very comfortable shelter and even an above average looking mate. If you are a child who has difficulty projecting your needs as an adult 5-15 years out, understandably you may have difficulty valuing grades in school as a meaningful motivator to do good work. Now I haven’t done a poll recently, but my instincts and much of the literature suggests, that most adolescents have trouble with this level of connecting their actions today with consequences that won’t be experienced for years to come. So how do we motivate our students? Maybe we (the adults) don’t. What if the work that students pursue is so meaningful to them we can step back and act more like guides? More and more I am seeing the value of giving students autonomy about what they want to learn. With autonomy, students are allowed the space and the support to apply their passions in a natural fashion.

Can you create autonomy in one hour?

The current school system does not build in autonomy, it takes it away at every turn. Take the current scheduling design of a typical school day. The schedule is a set pattern, depending on your particular institution, repeated every 5 to 7 days. As a result, the time spent on any given topic or project is limited to only an hour at a time, maybe only once a day. If you are lucky, you may have a block schedule and students can attend to a project for two hours at a time. When the bell rings, most students head off to their next class without a blink, but this pattern of work “flow” is not indicative of how we actually work in the real world. We accept the pattern because the current educational system was designed for mass production (see Changing Educational Paradigms by Ken Robinson). The patterns are regular, predictable, and easily managed, just the characteristics you would want in an industrial production line. Ironically, when students seek out autonomy in this system, it can be perceived as a behavioral issue, but that is a conversation to be had later.
Offering true autonomy to a student might sound a little like this, “hey I see that you can handle this, I trust you. You are competent, and even if you make mistakes, I expect you to learn from them.” A kid should lose autonomy only as a last resort, such as when they may inadvertently harm themselves. Lets face it, most of us have read Lord of the Flies, so constructive autonomy (where passionate learning can occur), still has an adult in the room in case stuff gets out of hand. Note that adults also have a need for autonomy, but not at the expense of safety. Most of us choose to live in a society with law and law enforcement rather than none. I haven’t read the literature on this one yet, but maybe for the adolescent (I believe Gever Tulley of SFBrightworks is definitely onto something here), autonomy has to feel like just the right amount of scary to feel genuine.

What does autonomy look like?

As luck would have it, after having started this blog on autonomy, I saw one of my very capable colleagues achieve this very model in her 7th grade class. Mrs. Pak, is a 7th grade History teacher and I happened upon one of her classes in the iLab this week. When I entered the room, the class was arranged with all the furniture along the walls except the black rolling chairs, which 15 7th graders were happily inhabiting. They were all discussing their impression of the presidential debates, and they were doing a really good job. Mrs. Pak was seated near the wall in a comfortable chair, blending into surroundings like a well adapted prey. I saw kids being respectful, supporting each other, speaking freely, and they self-policed when anyone got too loud or disrupted the social contract they had made. Mrs. Pak spoke not a word for 20 minutes while they discussed topics such as Mr. Obama’s body language compared to Mr. Romney’s and how that influences voters perceptions. After visiting Mrs. Pak’s class I concluded that autonomy means going outside your comfort zone as the adult in the room and staying very quiet. Best practice seems to be giving the right amount of autonomy to see students test their own boundaries, not ours, and recognizing when students are rising to their best. Throw in some cool rolling chairs that the teacher never tells them to stop moving, “I have better things to do with my time than correct them on everything,” says Mrs. Pak, and it feels – adult. It feels like constructive autonomy.

One of the variables we are looking at during our iLab study, is the achievement of autonomy through self-directed learning, as well as student created work spaces. So far, the results have been interesting. As seen in this photo, two students have claimed their space and now they are engaged in their problem solving task of inventing something new from 7 random household items, Macgyver style. We are still limited to a one hour period in a completely scheduled day, but part of the magic of the iLab is the sense that this space is a haven for a little bit of that desired autonomy. I know as the teacher, I feel it. When I had to put a finger on why using the iLab feels better than my traditional science lab, I realized that the promise of recreating my work space everyday was a seriously important factor to my own feelings of creativity and autonomy.


The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior
by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, Department of Psychology

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