Motivation Matters

My career in the classroom has inspired some classic teacher nightmares.

In my dreams, I show up very late for the first day of school only to discover that my grade level has been switched. I ride the bus to school in my pajamas. (Actually, that was Spirit Week.) I teach a class of forty-three students without a classroom, and live through a mundane Friday only to discover that the final bell is actually my morning alarm.

Every one of these dreams has disturbed my sleep, but what really keeps me up at night is the thought that, despite my efforts to nurture thoughtful, empathetic members of local and global communities, I have instead helped churn out materialistic, manipulable consumers.

Perhaps that last one makes me odder than most, but before dismissing it, indulge me for a moment and consider why you are here on Teachers Going Gradeless. It’s unlikely you are being granted PD points for visiting the site, and certainly you aren’t being paid, so why are you here? Did curiosity prompt you, begging the question, “How can school possibly exist without grades?” Have you experienced growing discomfort with students who seem to be more focused on their GPA than on learning? Whatever motivated you to click on the link that brought you here, it is likely rooted in some intrinsic desires and not some extrinsic scheme. With some of your limited discretionary time, you chose to visit a website about pedagogy.

Now, take the type of motivation that inspires you not only to teach, but to spend free time honing your craft, and compare it to the tactics often used to motivate students. High marks are dangled as rewards while low marks are wielded as punishments. Pizza hut offers free pizza to promote reading (and pizza, of course). Stickers, class rankings, and extra credit continue to focus student attention on achievement rather than learning. As Daniel Pink puts it in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “[w]e’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement.”³ If extrinsic motivators didn’t bring you to Teachers Going Gradeless, if your desire to actively engage in education and improve yourself as a teacher comes from within, why would we attempt to inspire and motivate students extrinsically?

The educators at Teachers Going Gradeless nudged me with this same question when I first connected with them, but just as important, they gave me examples of the power of intrinsic  motivation. Inspired by his own children, Aaron Blackwelder advocates for differentiation in classrooms everywhere. With moving vulnerability, Peter Anderson explores racial injustice. As principal, Mark Sonnemann serves teachers and students in his school with humanity and understanding. They are parents, teachers, and administrators who dedicate time and energy well beyond the requirements of their monetary compensation in order to develop skills, build community, and promote justice. Their examples have been my most effective teachers of motivation and empathy, which brings me back to my nightmare.

If we want [students] to consider the needs and viewpoints of others, we have to guide them gently to do so. If we want them to rely on cooperation rather than power, we have to set that example in how we deal with them. By contrast, offering rewards for compliance or punishments for noncompliance makes it increasingly difficult to promote other-oriented reasoning and empathy.

– Alfie Kohn² 

Just as my TG² peers set an example in their interactions with me, I must set an example of empathy for my students. If I continue to allow extrinsic motivators to shape my practice and color my relationships with students, I can’t be surprised when students struggle with empathy and begin to resemble the alumni in my dream.

My nightmare takes another step into the real world when I consider some of the recent research on how rewards not only erode interest in tasks, but might actually increase a person’s interest in the reward over time.  As the work of Hur and Nordgren suggests, “[w]hen performance was incentivized with monetary rewards, participants reported being more desirous of money, put in more effort to earn additional money in an ensuing task, and were less willing to donate money to charity.”¹ Suddenly it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that students raised on extrinsic pushing and pulling would graduate from school to chase money, promotions, and other status symbols.

No, the sky isn’t falling, but several decades worth of research no longer allow for denial: extrinsic motivations undermine much of what we claim to foster in our schools—engagement, community, empathy. So, whatever motivated you to stop by this site and read this far, it is time to explore motivation more deeply—for you and for your students. Likely you’ve heard the names: Kohn, Sinek, Pink. It is time to read (or reread) them for yourself and discuss what you find with students and colleagues. Flex your intrinsic muscles and help them build and honor theirs. Imagine your school and your community free from drudgery and filled with people who care about each other, who have interesting work to do, who feel they can actually shape the world we live in. That’s no nightmare; that’s living the dream.

Scott Hazeu teaches and learns with Grade 12 students in the center of Canada. They spend their days exploring literature and writing. Discover more of his writing on Medium and Re-Vision: The Continuing Education of a Teacher.

(1)Hur, J. D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2016). Paying for performance: Performance incentives increase desire for the reward object. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(3), 301-316.

(2)Kohn, Alfie. (2016) “Do Our Expectations of Kids Aim Too High or Too Low?” alfiekohn.org. January 22, 2018.  http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/high-low/

(3)Pink, Daniel H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

11 thoughts on “Motivation Matters

  1. Hi, Scott. What are your thoughts regarding motivation regarding marginalized students? As a Black female educator, I have to acknowledge that grades have become a gatekeeper for opportunities for them, and obsession with them is taught to children by their parents as a means for survival, legitimacy, and the pathway to “success”. I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of intrinsic motivation, but shouldn’t there a space for both views? It’s a hard sell for many parents, especially after their children advance to their next teacher.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’d echo Marian’s concern in having had my thinking somewhat complicated on this topic. First of all, I’m not sure there really is such a thing as a classroom without extrinsic motivation (I know you’re not saying that). I think of Lisa Delpit’s notion of being “warm demanders” if we want to engender equity in the classroom. If a teacher’s prodding comes from a place of commitment, of justice, of belief in students, then there’s no reason we should withhold that from students. In fact, withholding that can reinforce discrimination. This opens up a larger question about the quality of or basis for extrinsic motivation. Obviously, autonomy and purpose shouldn’t just be for the privileged few, but does Delpit’s “demanding” acknowledge the ways marginalized students have often been extrinsically DE-motivated by schools and society generally?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Arthur, in addition to the thoughts I shared with Marian, I wanted to push a little on the idea, “quality of…extrinsic motivation.” I’m interested to hear more about what you mean. My understanding of extrinsic motivation is that it is always about control, and I’m not seeing how quality fits in. I’m sure we will have cause to continue the conversation over one channel or another.

        Thank you for always pushing my thinking and practice.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. First, thank you for taking the time to read and respond, Marian. I really appreciate it.

      I am concerned about “going gradeless” if it means abolishing an existing system and leaving a vacuum that will only allow inequity and injustice to continue and perhaps even to grow. Grades should be used as one of many ways to communicate learning and progress, however, they are instead being used as rewards and punishments, which are instruments of power and control.

      Extrinsic motivation is about control; it is something “done to” people, not “done with” people. Grades, when used as tools of control by teachers, are not allies of equity. My fledgling attempts at minimizing the power dynamic of grades has been to seek student help in determining how to focus on learning and devising how to use grades to communicate that learning to family and future institutions of education and employment. I’m trying to “do with” students instead of “doing to” them. When students create/co-create much of the learning plans and class structures, then we can begin to flip the script on extrinsic motivation. For example, when I commit to exercising three times per week and recruit my wife to ask me every Friday if I’ve met my commitment, I’m setting up supportive accountability for myself. That has a very different genesis and feel than my wife announcing that she is going to check up on me to make sure I head to the gym.

      This requires relationship and trust and compromise and, oh my, it is complex. I’m a white, middle-aged male with a position of authority, and I have been regularly running into my blindspots, biases, and privilege. I’m so grateful for your question. It has had me writing a blog post in my head all weekend that asks for help in my personal and our collective journey toward communities where all are honoured and belong. I’m not sure if this response shows an adequate understanding of your question, but I trust it is one piece of a conversation. I couldn’t name every name in this post, but you are among the educators who have and continue to help me grow. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi again Scott,

        Obviously this has been a thought-provoking article for all involved. To elaborate on the idea of the “quality or basis for extrinsic motivation,” I come back to my go-to concept of intersubjectivity, that synthesis of complete autonomy/subjectivity on the one hand and complete heteronomy/objectification on the other. For me, the ideal balances those two extremes.

        I hear this balance in Delpit’s “warm demander” concept. There’s something both positive and extrinsic happening to the student in that case. While we have to resist asserting sovereignty over our students, we sometimes do them harm when we withhold that ‘demanding’ aspect. The ‘warmth’ may come in part from our responsiveness to student interests and passions. But it also comes from the strength of our commitment to students, such that the demanding is itself warmth.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Loved your post and your reply, I went gradeless this year (well kind of, it’s a process). I love the idea of “doing with” instead of “doing to”. It’s a simple idea that will stay in my mind and I will try to use it as a framework for my classroom.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My use of extrinsic motivation has been an area of which I have been more aware for the last two years. After reading both Kohn and Pink’s books, I have tried to give students more autonomy in the education they receive in my classroom. Less and less I feel like I’m trying to bribe my students with grades, and more and more I’m trying to make what we are doing relevant to their futures so they are intrinsically motivated to learn. I’m still in the early stages of the process, but the results so far are promising. Looking at the results over a longer period of time will be necessary to see the true impact I’m having.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You are planting and watering seeds, Brian, and I hope you will get to see the resulting growth and blossoming in the future. It is one of the many pleasures of teaching that help maintain my intrinsic desire to serve in education.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Scott,
    Speaking of extrinsic motivators, I found your blog during my hunt for a teachers perspective on differentiation for one of my graduate course assignments. lol I am currently enrolled as a graduate student at Kennesaw State University, studying English Education and I must say, I found this post not only extrinsically motivating, but also intrinsically satisfying for my motivation as a teacher. I am and always will be an out-of-the-box thinker therefore, I found this post and your blog to be genuinely refreshing. I hope you don’t mind if I use this post for my assignment.

    Thanks for the perspective,

    – Tayler

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Tayler, thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. Of course, you may use this post for your course work if it will help you. As an out-of-the-box thinker, you’ll definitely find some kindred spirits in the educators hanging around Teachers Going Gradeless; they will support you and push you in growth-inducing ways.

      Good luck on your assignment, and let me know if I (or any of us) can be of further help.

      Liked by 2 people

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