Pizza for reading, tickets for good behavior, points for participation, stickers for homework completion, marbles in a jar for teamwork, a good grade on an assignment. Educators have been using carrots and candy to reward behavior for a very long time. And why wouldn’t we? It seems to work. Students in my sophomore English class participated way more when I had my clipboard out and tallied their contributions. Readers in my Academic Literacy 9 class were much more “zoned” into their independent reading when I passed out suckers. So, what’s the problem? Daniel Pink in his 2010 book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (an oldie but a goodie if you haven’t read it) points out that if/then rewards, “If you do this, you get this,” only work to motivate us when we are doing rudimentary non-cognitive work. If we are completing anything that requires thinking, if/then rewards actually lead to poorer performance. Well, of course we want our students to be learning, thinking critically, ideating, evaluating, and more in our classrooms, so in essence we are harming that process by providing “carrots and candy.” So, what does motivate our students? John T. Guthrie, a leading researcher in the field of adolescent motivation and engagement, shares several motivations for students. Here are three:
1.Meaning and Mastery
Students are motivated when they know the meaning behind the task. So often we focus on the what and how in education, but our students need us to help them discover the why. At times I found this difficult and often resorted to the reason for learning being that they will need that skill in the future for college or a job. Unfortunately, this isn’t intrinsically motivating for our students. They need to understand the immediate relevance. I also thought relevance meant I needed to connect learning with their current lives. It’s great if we can do this, but we don’t need to. Instead, we can make learning relevant when we connect the new to something students already know. An easy way to do this is to begin each day with a shared learning experience through a mini lesson then have students connect new learning to that known learning.
Students are also motivated when they are working toward mastery. Two specific strategies that I tried in order to focus on mastery in our classroom were to provide opportunities for students to try again, and to reward process over product. Rick Wormeli introduced me to the idea of “ABC Do it again” and that practice really helped my sophomores stop focusing on points and instead turn their attention to the learning. All of our work was rubric based and if students didn’t meet the “C” on the rubric (for any of the learning targets) they received an incomplete. It became part of the culture to recognize that all students will have times in their learning where they simply need more practice. This was a game changer. Additionally, we really focused our attention on reflecting more on our process throughout the learning and less on the final product. Yes, students still needed to do a small group discussion for a final grade or turn in a final paper, but since they had all their feedback and coaching during the process, there were very few surprises when receiving a final grade on the product.
2.Control and Choice
Our students may sometimes act as if they prefer a passive stance to learning, but they are most motivated and engaged when in the driver’s seat of their own learning. When students have control and choice, we see students who are more likely to persist when the learning gets challenging; we hear a buzz in the classroom; and ultimately, everyone feels more joy. Taking an inquiry approach to instruction is key.
When students are immersed in a unit of study guided by an essential question, their curiosity is sparked, and they tend to have much less of a “get ‘er done” attitude about the tasks they are working on. Here are some examples of how questions can draw our students into the learning. In 9th grade English, instead of teaching the Romeo and Juliet unit, let students explore “What makes or breaks a relationship?” In science, ask students, “How do we know if something is alive?” In social studies, give students the opportunity to explore, “What can we learn about a culture through its art forms?” In math, “What are the patterns in the information we collect and how are these patterns useful?” In physical education, “Why is it important to be physically fit and how can we stay fit?” Or in music, “How do film scores affect the overall mood and message of the movie?” Questions drive curiosity and in turn put students into the driver seat of learning.
3.Confidence & Self-Efficacy
A final way we can cultivate students’ intrinsic motivation is by coaching their confidence. Self-efficacy is the belief that “I can because I think I can.” Students will persist through productive struggle when they believe they can do the task. We need to do more than just say to students, “You can do it.” One of the best ways I have found to help students believe in themselves is to have them reflect on the hobbies they are passionate about and the process they go through to get better. When students articulate this process including all the struggle, the sweet spots of a just-right challenge, the collaboration necessary, the studying they do, the trials and errors, etc. they are outlining the learning process for anything. When we can help students see that they already know how to move through the process, they have more confidence in applying it to something they aren’t yet intrinsically motivated to try. We, as adults, also need to model our struggles so students can see that learning doesn’t come easy.
When I focused more on the conditions necessary to truly motivate students, I was able to put the participation point clipboard away and save all kinds of money on candy. Students felt respected and trusted to do the work of learning.