Saturday, April 14, 2012

Intrinsic Motivation

 Picture obtained from:

As I was captured in the dungeon of Math field testing this week with no windows and very little fresh air, it got me thinking about intrinsic motivation!  I know, that is freakishly crazy!

As I watched (particularly the 8th grade algebra students) work away sometimes for hours on a test with no obvious motivation to do well (no carrot or stick), several things occurred to me.  I was intrigued by the students who might have realized that there was no reward for doing well on this test, yet worked arduously.  There was no grade attached to this test, no one here at school will probably really look at the results, and the students knew this.

Interestingly, some other students who I perceived as "really smart kids" (who are probably accustomed to being told they are brilliant, and ordinarily "work for the prize") seemed to rush through the test.  Perhaps there was no obvious reward for spending much time on this field test.  Some of them quickly finished and it appeared to me made very little effort. What does that say about them?  What do they "perform for" normally?  And, is this what we really want to teach them to do (only work for "the prize" (of the good grade)?

Others worked diligently for hours to get the job done, and it occurred to me they might be what we call intrinsically motivated to do well--doing well for the sake of doing well or for the fact that this test might help the state figure out if this is a indeed a good test (as we had explained to them). Some may be perfectionists too, and what makes them perfectionists? I wondered.

While I was standing there observing the test takers, I just happened to glance at the article linked below on twitter, and a light bulb went off!  It reminded me that research study after research study shows that the "carrot and stick" approach does not work for motivating our students to solve complex problems.  But what about doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing?  After reading this article, "the behavior" I was seeing in that field testing situation over several days made more sense to me.

The question is..."How can people (particularly teachers) create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?"  Is what we do on a daily basis in our classrooms teaching students to be fundamentally motivated? This article has some very good answers and thought provoking ideas:


  1. Thanks for posting this, John. I have been diligently working all year on getting my kids to make connections in order to solve problems and answer questions, but all they are interested in is the grade. It breaks my heart.

  2. Thanks Kirby, I think you are preaching the right message. It is especially important in American society where so many of the jobs that really were "carrot and stick" oriented have gone overseas. So at one time there was an abundance of low level thinking jobs where you worked to finish making something and your reward was both finishing making whatever it was you were making and getting your pay check. Now, so many jobs are requiring a more complex level of thinking because the trend as been for the American niche in international business to be "the thinking jobs". The reseacrh shows that the carrot and stick approach for this type of "out of the box thinking" just doesn't work as well as self/intinisic motivation. John