Motivation: drop the carrot and the stick!

Monday 9 September 2013

I once spoke to one of my form group students (that’s a home room student or a tutee, for those not familiar with UK terminology) about her general lack of motivation – in all school subjects - to read set books and complete set essays and homework. After listening to her describe her problems with procrastination, I have to admit (to my shame), I made the usual suggestions. Would it be useful if she broke the work to be covered into smaller sections? What if she rewarded herself with a treat for every section of a set book she read? And could I help, by setting strict deadlines, and staying to supervise her work after school if she missed a submission?

My student tried to meet me half way, but her anxious smile, and polite efforts to shut me up by thanking me demonstrated that I was not offering any advice that could help. I felt frustrated. “You see, you have to do these things,” I said. “If you don’t get the right grades across all your subjects, you are going to have trouble getting into the university you want. See this work as a means to an end, and just get through it – or it’s going to stop you achieving your real goals.”  But even my introduction of this ultimate threat was useless. “You see, Mrs Whitehurst, the thing is, I just have no interest in any of this stuff, so it’s really hard to force myself to study it. And even when I do feel interested in the subject, the minute I find myself being threatened or rewarded for anything to do with school work, I don’t care anymore. I just want to give up. I don’t know why.”

At the time, I didn’t know why, either. But that was before I saw the fantastic RSA animateDrive: the surprising truth about what motivates us’ by Daniel Pink. (It’s based on his TED talk ‘Dan Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation’.) According to Pink, my student’s de-motivation could be traced back to the way in which her school curriculum had been presented to her. She wanted to give up because she had no autonomy in her learning; because the tasks set get her no sense of increasing mastery, and - despite the fact that she had a personal purpose for learning - because there was no larger purpose to the individual tasks she had been set. In other words, my student had no intrinsic motivation to study the tasks and subjects the course required; her motivators were all extrinsic. And as studying is a cognitive exercise, this made for a problematic situation.

Both teachers and students can benefit from keeping the three keys to intrinsic motivation in mind: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Recognizing a lack of intrinsic motivation for what it is can be empowering. Quite often, when we find ourselves suddenly filled with aversion for subjects we used to be passionate about, we can imagine that we have somehow gone off the study of that subject, or have no talent for it. But in fact, the aversion we experience may be due only to the institutional introduction of extrinsic motivation, which has paralysed the intrinsic motivation which led to our enrolling on the course in the first place. By changing the approach to a subject in order to emphasise autonomy of study, acquisition of mastery, or the higher purposes to which it relates, it is possible to reactivate intrinsic motivation, and so bypass such cognitive paralysis.

I wish I could go back in time and show my student the Daniel Pink RSA animate. Better – I wish I could go back in time to my teacher training days, and show myself this video. I think, as a student, it helps to know that you are not alone in finding sticks and carrots unhelpful when it comes to learning. As a teacher, it helps to remember that sticks and carrots don’t work for creativity or complexity – only for mundane and simple tasks. To engage your students’ creativity, you have to set their minds free.


Tags: #motivation, #reading, #set works, #assessment


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