May 24, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Student motivation

Think about this discussion on motivation presented in 2009 by Daniel Pink, career analyst, ex-speech writer for Al Gore, and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He described how modern business management styles once motivated employees—the old “carrot and stick” or reward and punishment approach—actually works in direct conflict with what science has shown about human motivation.

When it comes to optimizing performance on creative tasks, Pink, drawing from the conclusions of numbers psychological studies, tells us that it comes down to three elements:

1)     Autonomy: people have the urge to direct their own lives.

2)     Mastery: people have an innate desire to improve in skills that matter.

3)     Purpose: people want to contribute to something larger than themselves.

Environments that cultivated these three conditions led to faster, better, more creative work.

Now, consider this idea applied to the classroom. We have a great opportunity to make our classrooms into places where students can experience learning based on the three principles above, autonomy, mastery and purpose (AMP).I would argue that we need to “AMP up” our teaching.

When I consider instilling self-motivation in students, Pink’s three elements give us a great framework upon which we can begin to construct our teaching strategies.

Now, giving up the carrot and the stick will be a tough one for many of us to stomach, especially because our educational system is so rooted in such thinking. Certainly, rewards can serve to get a student to finish his homework, clean up her desk or complete a project. But, incentivizing does notcultivate self-motivation, and as Pink describes, the research shows that it actually decreases creative capabilities.

So, what might an AMPed classroom look like?

  • Autonomy: In such a classroom, students have clear goals to reach, but maybe they have the freedom to schedule their own time (within reason) and create their own strategies for how and when they will reach those goals.
  • Mastery: Students need to understand whythey are learning what they are learning. They need to understand the context around why these skills are so important. In an AMPed classroom, this information is integrated into instruction and students are encouraged to assimilate the “why” of their lessons just as much as the “what.”
  • Purpose: In AMPed classrooms, lessons and projects are not hypothetical. They are based in the real-world and allow students to truly affect positive change in our classrooms, schools and communities.

In the end, if we look at these three ways of looking at motivation, we are simply shifting the motivators from external ones to internal ones. We are connecting our lessons directly to what is important to each individual student at a personal level. Through providing a way for the student to insert themselves into the material through the creative process and their own solution development, the learning becomes directly relevant to their lives and priorities.

Edward Deci, a premier researcher on 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?" [i] Ultimately, our success as educators must lie in taking the long view of our students’ lives—beyond their lives as students to when they will put their educations to use as professionals. And with that long view, the future adult who is a self-motivated individual will certainly be more successful than the person who stands by waiting for others to move them.

Watch Daniel Pink’s 19-minute TED talk on the surprising science of motivation.

[i]Ferlazzo, Larry. “ Helping Students Motivate Themselves.” Education Week Teacher, April 22, 2011. 

For further reading:

Self-Determination Theory: An Approach to Human Motivation and Personality , Edward Deci and Richard Ryan

Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers To Classroom Problems , Larry Ferlazzo, 2011

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Related Reading:

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn, and Grow