If you strip back extrinsic motivators (stickers, grades, threats etc) from a learning environment, there is only one way to collectively motivate a class – via a shared sense of purpose.
When students feel meaningfully connected to a common purpose, a pathway to the future is illuminated. And when students can see where you want to take them, and they want to go there too, you don’t need carrots and sticks anymore.
Fewer stickers and more ‘why’ – why does this learning matter?
There are multiple negative learning outcomes associated with the use of grades as a motivational tool. Perhaps the most problematic of all is that it encourages students to focus on how well they are doing rather than on what they are doing or why what they are learning matters. When this is combined with some form of ranking system, not only are students focussed on their performance instead of learning, but they are also distracted by trying to beat other students. Consequently, we get divided attention, increased pressure and erosion of class teamwork, trust, and cohesion.
Sure, grades are an easy and effective way to generate student obedience, but is it really worth all of that downside?
New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant to describe the two basic motivational systems in the human brain. The rider represents the rational system – the part that plans, thinks through problems, and weighs potential benefit against cost. The elephant represents the emotional system – the part that enables us to feel, to instinctively respond to the world, and that provides the power for the journey.
When the rider and the elephant are working together, synchronised on their journey, they make great progress. But the elephant is nearly 100 times heavier than the rider, so if there is disagreement or distraction – when push comes to shove…guess who wins?
So often, we spend a disproportionate amount of time finessing the rational element of our lessons, or meetings, or plans and we fail to intelligently and deliberately invest in motivating the elephant.
Teaching and learning is a highly human, highly emotional experience. In our classrooms, in our learning journeys, the rider matters a lot but the elephant matters more.
In pretty much every country around the world, there is a road rule that compels drivers to pull over or move out of the way of an approaching emergency ambulance. There are, usually, very strict penalties for those who fail to comply. But these penalties are almost completely redundant. Why? Well, has this thought ever crossed your mind: ‘Ah, there’s an ambulance coming up behind me with its lights flashing. I’d better pull aside because I fear I might get a $400 fine.’ No. You have never had that thought. You’re not afraid of the penalty. You pull over and follow the road rule because it’s a good rule! You want to follow the rule, regardless of the potential fine. It’s a rule that makes sense. And so we act autonomously, of our own volition to follow the rule.
This sense of volition, of adhering to a regulation, norm, parameter, or rule voluntarily – even when we don’t control the rule itself – is one of the fundamental components of intrinsic human motivation.
Nearly 50 years of research into student motivation has identified that a sense of autonomy is a universal psychological need that has a powerful impact on learning and social outcomes. Importantly, autonomy is not about independence or freedom. In fact, the most effective classroom environments are those that are highly structured and highly autonomous. In other words, great teachers set up tight parameters, and clear values and behavioural expectations. And the students endorse these boundaries with their inherent, ‘natural’ behaviours. They follow the rules because they like them and because they make sense…just like the ambulance rule.
Is it predominantly fear or volition that motivates people in your environment to follow the rules?