What really motivates our students?

After School Learning

After School Learning (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

As I argued in my earlier post, merit pay is a massive disincentive for many teachers. Dangling a bonus in front of me is not going to make me more productive or a better teacher. And reward schemes for students don’t foster intrinsic motivation. In fact, Alfie Kohn argues in his book ‘Punished by Rewards‘ that they have the exact opposite effect. Interest and engagement declines after rewards, or even certain types of praise, are given for student performance.

How can we motivate people to engage in tasks or learning that they do not find intrinsically rewarding? 

Reflecting on my own habits I can tell you it’s not money.

If I think about how I motivate myself to do what I don’t like to do, it comes down to having my vision fixed on the bigger picture. I want my students to learn to read, so I put the hard yards in planning, programming, diagnosing, assessing, researching ways of supporting students having difficulty, finding new resources etc. The reward comes in when I see the fruits of my labour – my struggling readers becoming confident and learning to enjoy reading.

I don’t like to clean my house, but I love to be in a clean and peaceful environment, so I focus on that, not the irksome tasks it takes to get there. I hate ironing clothes, but I today I’ll  do some because I have a new dress I’m excited about wearing out tonight.

Perhaps a similar approach will help motivate students. If the end they are working towards is something they are excited about, then they’ll be more willing to complete the mundane tasks that get them there. This does not mean an external award – like a class party if they all complete an assignment. The work itself has to have a direct and meaningful link to the outcome.

Project Based and Passion Based Learning

Project and Passion Based Learning may be the answer. Last year as an interest project, one of my students, who was not a good writer, decided he wanted to learn how to make a website. I gave him a Weebly account and he went to work. In his enthusiasm for building a website about science, he created pages for the different science ideas he was interested in – and then he had to write for them. Not only did he have to write, he had to proofread, checking his work for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Oh, and while he was at it, he had to think about navigation. Would his website be linear or non-linear? Would links open up in the same page or in a new page? Should he include a home button on each page? Then there was attribution. He had to learn about acknowledging his sources and creative commons. Throughout the whole process he was learning how to be a better writer.

But I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of awards and merits entirely – which seems to be what Kohn is suggesting (though I haven’t finished his book yet). And there is NO WAY I would suggest that to a Kindergarten teacher about to start the year with a group of 20 wild, unschooled 4 and 5 year olds. In fact, I’d be encouraging them to use every incentive plan they can think of!

For information about Project Based and Passion Based Learning, check out the links below.



13 thoughts on “What really motivates our students?

  1. Your post raises some interesting questions, Corinne. Certainly what motivates a student in the early years will be different from what a late primary/early secondary school student will be motivated by. Likewise, what motivates them will be different from what motivates a Year 12 or someone in their adult years. Maybe incentive/reward systems have a place but need to change or gradually be withdrawn as a child matures and develops their own passions and motivations? And how exciting that it is part of the teacher’s role to work in partnership with the student and their family to help them discover interests, talents and motivation!

    • Hi Melissa, I agree with you- what motivates will change as students get older. But Kohn seems to be arguing that incentive/rewards never have a place if its an activity which has the possiblity of intrinsic motivation. He’s quoted research that showed a group pre-schoolers losing interest in playing with certain toys after rewards were introduced, whereas the control group, with no reward continued to be interested for longer periods. Similar results occurred in with all different age groups and incentives.

      He recommends only using rewards for tasks that will never be intrinsically interesting. Or for things like toilet training.

      I’m finding the book quite provocative – I’ve been using praise and reward for 20 years now to engage students in work, and to teach positive behaviours. But I’m enjoying having my thinking about it challenged.

      • It does sound really interesting…might have a look into that one! Until then I still think praise and logical rewards (just like logical consequences) have a place.

  2. Such is the benefit of the ‘unschooling method’ of education. When we home schooled some of our children, they gradually learned how to move about in a free thinking fashion. At times they complained about not learning anything but when they went back to school, they found that not only had they learned, they were ahead of most of their class peers. They even had a grasp of world geography from their love of the world jigsaw puzzle.

    I would rather children exercise their minds by exploring instead of just memorising useless stuff.

    • That’s interesting. I can see how homeschooling would allow that. Hopefully not too many schools just ask kids to memorise facts these days though there was certainly a lot of that when I was in primary school.

      • The reason we home schooled was because the first year of school for our youngest daughter traumatised her. She not only became the victim of a school bully in her class who aggressively belted her, the teachers and school Admin refused to act in any way. This left her so scared of school that just hearing the word ‘school’ saw her wet herself in a gush of urine as her body went tense with tremors. To cover their own behinds, the school admin made an allegation against me of criminal in nature which affected the whole household. If anything, this made all of our children fearful of letting us know if anything was concerning them at school right up to now. A criminal lawyer later and the Police were gone but the damage was done.

        At the advice of the Clinical Psychologist, we withdrew her for homeschooling. My wife did this in the unschooling method as anything that reminded her of school only served to upset. Our youngest, the son who started school in the same year, later told us that he had been going through the same thing at the school as well.

        The only reason we put them back in school was because it was the only way for us to give them the socialisation they need. We are living 700km from the Big Smoke(Rockhampton) and we could not pay for activities like the Scouts as I am on the Disability Pension.

        In regard to the unschooling method, it really does not seem as if they are learning but they are learning more than anyone realises until later. There were some measures we changed too later on though such as ‘Mathletics’ which is brilliant.

        A good balance between is needed, I believe. Just look at European nations with a high achieving education system. They have shorter hours, more time outside and for free thinking. Australia amongst other nations, seems fear ‘imagination’ yet it is those who exercise imagine who succeed and drive our world forward such as, Richard Branson.

      • Schooling and Home Schooling both have their advantages and disadvantages. One thing I would like to see change with the schooling system is whatever it that seems to stop children from thinking. Once they were back at school, they quickly went back to needing to ask how things were done instead of exploring themselves to learn. I am curious what it is in the schooling system that does that.

  3. If you find Punished by Rewards interesting, then I’d like to recommend the work of Dr. William Glasser. His books, Schools without Failure, Quality Schools, Every Student Can Succeed and his foundational text, Choice Theory, create a vision of schools without punishment and coercion but rather schools with joyful learning and positive relationships. Jon Erwin, one of Glasser’s students, later wrote a book with helpful “how to” implementation ideas called, Classroom of Choice. There are schools in the US using his ideas called Glasser Quality Schools that are truly extraordinary places to visit. If you are interested in training, check out http://www.wglasser.com. Sorry to get on my soap box but these ideas are something I’m passionate about because I not only know they work, I’ve seen them in action!

    • Hi Kim, thanks for reminding me of Glasser. – I read Choice Theory a few years ago, but haven’t thought much about it lately. It was excellent. I’ve also got Quality Schools and Every Student Can Succeed gathering dust on my bookshelf but I never got around to reading them. I will definitely pull the out after I’ve finished with Kohn.

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