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Motivating Students: The Best Intentions Sometimes Have the Opposite Effect

written by: tstyles • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 1/5/2012

Children enter our schools motivated and excited to learn. It's only after teachers start "motivating" them that they typically become unmotivated to learn.

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    One of the biggest questions administrators often have for perspective teachers is, "How will you motivate your students?" This indeed is a trick question because the organization and structure of a typical school does not take the need to motivate students into consideration. So how do we answer a question like this and manage to sound unique in the process?

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    Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

    First, let's consider that there are two types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. The goal of any educator should be to create a real sense of desire and motivation that comes from within (intrinsic) instead of a false sense of motivation that comes from being bribed, controlled, and rewarded (extrinsic).

    Let's face it, children come to school at the age of five excited, curious, motivated, and generally enthralled.

    Usually by first grade this intrinsic desire to be part of "school" gradually diminishes and children begin desperately seeking vacations, breaks, and sick days. My niece, who only finished first grade this past year said to her grandmother one day after being complimented on how well she did on a report card, "I just do what I have to to get the job done."

    This statement I think articulates what most children begin to feel of school, that it is a job much like the job their parents go off to each day, only to come home complaining about it around the dinner table. They are only motivated to learn in order to move to the next grade level, get the highest grade they can, and move to the next level as determined by a bunch of tests that put trivial knowledge to the test.

    What could possibly make the difference between a child who is excited about school and motivated to do his best in all activities, and someone who is only trying to get by? I'll let the reader decide, given two classroom scenarios, which scenario would more likely lead to genuine motivation and which will probably lead to an artificial type of motivation.

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    Two Classroom Scenarios

    Child A goes to school each day. He has his own space, a desk which is one of twenty in a classroom, all in neat rows.

    The classroom is quiet as the class works individually on a worksheet practice page. A neighbor of Child A sneaks a peek at his paper and the teacher notices and puts his name on the board...the first warning. Sarah in the front row finishes early and the teacher puts a gold star on her paper.

    As children begin to finish the teacher hands out the results of a test. Some children have done well and received stickers, and others did not do so well. The teacher announces the plans for the rest of the day and then discusses with them a new independent reading program whereas the person who reads the most books gets a coupon for a free ice cream. The class cheers in unison. She announces the date of the school's spelling bee and celebrates the children in the classroom who were able to pass the initial test to be part of it.

    Child B starts the day in a group, discussing a newspaper article that has been read by the day's table leader.

    Later the teacher discusses the thoughts of the various groups as a whole class. The teacher then tells them to get out their books and head to their reading groups to dicuss the last section of the book they read and to choose more pages to read for that day.

    After, the class stops everything and the children go off to the reading corner to choose books to read quietly and independently. They carefully follow the guidelines they came up with as a class to see this time each day is not interrupted.

    During silent reading the teacher meets with Child B to hear him read and make notes about his progress. After, the teacher assigns the groups an investigation in math, and sets them off working on this investigation for later discussion.

    Clearly in both scenarios the teacher has found ways to motivate her students, but in the first case she has motivated them by dangling a carrot in front of them. Much of what they accomplish is going to be in order to obtain the sticker, coupon, or highest grade. In the case of being part of the spelling bee, children are motivated to study and learn so they are not excluded. Imagine sending a message to a child that he cannot be included if he does not know as much as his classmates. In this type of class the teacher has to wonder what the students would do if there were no stickers, grades, or coupons? Her entire reputation has just been revealed as her ability to control the actions of her students, which in my mind is not much of an accomplishment.

    In the second scenario the teacher motivates the students by providing activities the students would want to do. She allows them to discuss their thoughts and ideas with each other, gives them choice in how the classroom is set up and run, gives them choice in what to read, allows for interaction, and meets with children to assess their needs, but not in the context of assigning a poor grade to someone who has not reached a certain point.

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    Behaviorism Doesn't Work

    In essence, we cannot build a classroom with behaviorist roots. This implies that children will only be interested or care about learning if they are punished or rewarded for what they do or don't do. This deliberate action to control students actually proves harmful to student motivation.

    If we set up our classrooms in such a way where children want to learn and want to participate then we won't, as teachers, have to worry about them not being active participants in their day. Learning will be spontaneous and the result of student curiosity and desire. Go figure, that offering choice and freedom in the classroom, the foundations of democracy, lends itself to higher student motivation.

    I believe that money, a huge motivator because of our need for it (or superficial need for it depending on how one looks at it), should be a byproduct of doing something that we would be doing even if no money were involved in us doing the activity.

    Sometimes I hear the question, "If you hit the lottery and won millions, would you still continue to teach?" By saying no I imply that my motivation to teach is to earn money. My typical response, trying to be realistic, sounds something like this, "I would like to think so." There is nothing artificial about that. Nor should there be anything artificial about what your students are doing and why they are doing it.