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How Teachers Can Motivate Students of Any Age

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Barry Schwartz laughs as he describes the little girl next door who suddenly dove into reading after a substitute teacher took over her elementary school classroom. For every book they read, recalls the Swarthmore College psychology professor, students received a point, which they later cashed in for prizes. The girl then started to read a book an hour. The only catch was that she picked her books based on the number of pages and type size, and “she couldn’t tell you anything about any of them,” he says.

Schwartz shared this story about the binge-reading neighbor during a conference call with Yale University associate professor Amy Wrzesniewski explaining their research on motivation. The scholars have been carrying out a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to determine the relative success of those who were motivated by intrinsic rewards versus those driven by “instrumental,” or extrinsic rewards.

They assumed that some combination of internal and external motives would lead to the most success, as measured by the officers’ willingness to stay beyond the five-year commitment to the Army and to graduate and become commissioned officers. In fact, they found that cadets who expressed the most intrinsic motivation were more successful than those who showed mixed motives to serve. In other words, those driven to attend West Point motivated in part by internal forces, like the wish to become a fine officer, were more successful in their pursuits than those driven by extrinsic rewards, such as the desire to get a good job after graduation.

The same subtle interplay between motivation and rewards is also at work when it comes to education and learning, say Schwartz and Wrzesniewski. Rewarding students for getting their schoolwork done with prizes, snacks and even grades, as most schools do, can have the unintended effect of dismantling a child’s drive to learn for its own sake. The intrinsic rewards that come from exploring interests in depth, and mastering difficult concepts and problems, can be smothered by a reward system that focuses on grades, say, rather than understanding. It also signals what’s important to the teachers.

“When you dangle Burger King in front of kids’ noses, you are telling them what kind of consequence matters, and what motive to pay attention to,” Schwartz says. “And education will suffer.”


In Elementary School

How can teachers promote the intrinsic benefits of learning in school systems that depend on grades as a way to measure progress?

“Every teacher wishes their entire class was intrinsically motivated,” says Kathy Branchflower, a veteran fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln-Hubbard School in Summit, New Jersey. Branchflower says that our cultural inclination to praise and reward kids, often for minimal achievement, has contributed to the decline in kids’ intrinsic motivation. Another culprit in reducing inner drive is kids’ overly structured lives, Branchflower adds, because children lose confidence and motivation when adults make the decisions for them. To build it back, she reminds her students that they are responsible for their own learning, adding that she is a mere facilitator to their education.

“My job is to empower them to help them become independent young learners,” she says.

As a practical matter, this means stopping short of answering questions that the kids are capable of figuring out on their own. Children are also given as much choice as possible in the layout of the classroom. “I say to the kids, ‘This is your classroom, let’s structure it so it works best for you.’”

Branchflower expects a lot of her students, but praises their effort rather than their results and works to make the lessons fun. In teaching them about the Oregon Trail, for example, she assigns everyone new names and ages in keeping with those times, so the kids feel like characters in history rather than detached observers. In another exercise, she divides the class into eclectic groups, gives each a box of Legos, and challenges every group to build the tallest tower—-all without saying a word to anyone else on their team.

“When you make it fun, they’re more inclined to embrace it -- it helps them develop curiosity,” she says, which drives enthusiasm for learning.

In Middle School and Beyond

Randy Wallock, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, also in New Jersey, uses similar approaches to encourage learning for its own sake among his students: They’re given choice and autonomy and the freedom to work at their own pace. He also tries to build what he calls “little cultures within the classroom to encourage learning;” teenagers are responsive to social expectations, and creating environments where curiosity is cool invites more self-directed learning.

For Cary Mallon, who has taught algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and geometry over the last 22 years at Hood River Valley High School in Oregon, stimulating the internal drive to solve math problems has proved difficult. “With math, there’s a lot of students who loathe it,” he says. Whereas younger students are more intrinsically motivated, many older kids complete their assignments for the sake of the grade, and are content to understand just one way to solve a problem, Mallon says.

“In a lot of ways, our system trains the students to be this way,” he says. He is hopeful that moving away from a curriculum that focuses on minutiae and abstract equation -- what Stanford University professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler calls “school math”—and toward one that focuses on practical problem-solving and logical reasoning might inspire more kids to study and enjoy the subject.

When students bring up the classic adolescent lament -- when will I ever use this equation in real life? -- he tells them that understanding math is part of being a well-rounded person, just as learning an abstruse poem may someday inform their appreciation for life.

Generating enthusiasm for learning among college-age kids will be tough if they’ve grown up to expect pats on the head and perfects grades in exchange for their labor, Schwartz says. “If you start kids the wrong way -- say, by rewarding them with pizza -- then their intrinsic motives will vanish,” he says. Still, he and Wrzesniewski believe that a thoughtful and attentive college professor has the power to affect how students are motivated.

“As a teacher, you have a choice of what you respond to,” says Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “Do you pay attention to students who have their laptops out, or do you pay attention to students who are asking intelligent questions?” she asks. Making those kids who ask intelligent questions feel “valued, responded to and celebrated,” she says, brings more of that out in others.


Schwartz agrees, but warns that sending out these kinds of signals must be done slowly and subtly. He adds, “You have to be careful you’re not making this another instrumental reward.”