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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/14/2011

Helping students motivate themselves

This piece was adapted from “ Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges ” by Larry Ferlazzo, available April 22 from Eye on Education . Ferlazzo teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He writes a popular blog for teachers and is the author of three books. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.. A version of this excerpt recently appeared in Education Week Teacher.

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By Larry Ferlazzo

Many proposals pushed by some “school reformers” often appear to be guided by their belief that schools should be run similar to how they believe businesses operate. Merit pay, paying parents to participate more in schools and paying students to do better on tests are just a few of the unsuccessful policies that result from that faulty premise.

The following highlights research that questions the basic idea that rewards/incentives has major role in education. Though it focuses on their use with students in the classroom, it does not require a great leap of logic to apply them to many aspects of education policy.)

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A teacher thinks: I work so hard at trying to get these kids motivated. Some are, but so many aren’t. They just seem to want to get by—if that. I try to encourage them—I’m their biggest cheerleader! But it can get so tiring. I feel like I’m pushing a rope with some of my students. Why can’t they just want to achieve instead of having to be pushed into it?

How many of us educators have said, felt, or thought something similar?

Strategies that teachers will often use in these efforts to motivate students include offering incentives and rewards—”If you read a certain number of books you’ll get a prize!”—or cheerleading relentlessly—”Good job, Karen!” It’s also not unusual for teachers to just “give up” on some students—”They just don’t want to learn!”

One of the lessons community organizers learn is that you might be able to threaten, cajole, badger, or bribe someone to do something over the short-term, but getting someone to do something beyond a very, very short timeframe is a radically different story. Organizers believe that you cannot really motivate anybody else. However, you can help people discover what they can use to motivate themselves.

This is very similar to what Edward Deci, one of the premier researchers and authorities on intrinsic motivation, wrote: “The proper question is not, ‘how can people motivate others?’ but rather, “how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?”

When we are trying to motivate students—often unsuccessfully—the energy is coming from us. When we help students discover their own motivation, and challenge them to act on it, more of the energy is coming from them.

In fact, this perspective is in keeping with the original roots of the word “motivation.” It comes from “motive” which, in the 15th century, meant “that which inwardly moves a person to behave a certain way.”

Community organizers call it the difference between irritation — pushing people to do something you want them to do — and agitation, challenging them to act on somethingthey have identified as important in their lives.

The Dangers of Incentives and Rewards

Many studies have shown that ontrary to what many of us believe, providing rewards to induce desired behaviors can result in long-term damage to intrinsic motivation. As Daniel Pink summarizes in his book, Drive ”:

“Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.”

Researchers believe this loss of intrinsic motivation happens because contingent rewards—if you do this, then you’ll get that—force people to give up some of their autonomy. Deci, Pink, and William Glasser all highlight this need for learner autonomy as crucial for students and for all of us. As economist Russ Roberts commented in an interview with Pink, “Nobody wants to feel like a rat in a maze.”

Rewards (and punishments) have been found to be effective, however, in getting people to do mechanical and routine work that can be accomplished simply. For example, they can result in employees working faster on an assembly line or, in the classroom, getting students to make basic changes in their behavior. However, as Pink and others have shown, rewards can be destructive in advancing anything that requires higher-order thinking.

Of course, we all expect — and need — what Pink calls “baseline rewards.” These are the basics of adequate “compensation.” At school, these might include students expecting fair grading, a caring teacher who works to provide fairly engaging lessons, or a clean classroom. Pink writes:

If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.

None of these points mean that students cannot be recognized and celebrated for their successes. The key is not holding it out as a “carrot,” but instead, providing it as an unexpected “bonus.”

The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” The idea is not to tell students that they will die from the cold or from being eaten by wolves if they do not start a fire right now and right here and in this way. Nor is the idea to say that, if they do what we tell them, they will get an extra bag of marshmallows to toast. Instead, the goal can be to find out where they want to set their fire and why, and perhaps help them learn how to use matches or a flint, and give them advice on the best place to find some dry wood.

Years ago, a volunteer leader in one of our community groups (I had a 19-year career as an organizer prior to becoming a teacher) was comparing two organizers with whom she had worked. She learned a lot of information from Ralph, she said. “But Johnny taught me how to think.”

Perhaps if we’re able to keep some of these concepts in mind, our students will describe us more like Johnny than like Ralph. And perhaps they’ll say we also helped them light their own fires.

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