Motivational Challenges

by Dean Mattson

Like most teachers, I’ve used a lot of different types of rewards to try to motivate my students over the years, and I’ve always been dismissive of those who criticize the use of them. Sure, students who are self-motivated learners are far preferable than the alternative, but not all of them are going to be like that and their teachers are still responsible for teaching them. Extrinsic rewards aren’t ideal, but they’re necessary.

And are rewards really that bad?Does anyone really believe that the millions of dollars that Michael Jordan earned every year playing basketball diminish his love of the game one iota? Similarly I’m paid to work with computers everyday; does that mean I enjoy them any less? Absolutely not.

Reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive however made me rethink my beliefs on the subject. He makes a compelling case that, although rewards can produce a short term boost, “the effect wears off – and worse, can reduce a person’s long-term motivation.”

Simple rewards worked perfectly well for the menial jobs that were predominate in the past, Pink argues. But today’s more sophisticated jobs require a different mindset. What people want is (1) autonomy, a desire to be self-directed; (2) mastery, a desire to get better at what we do; and (3) purpose, a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. If we don’t have those in our work environment, rewards are not going to improve our performance over the long run. (Fortunately, both Michael Jordan, in his pro basketball career, and I do.)

“Solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one’s way to a fresh solution,” Pink writes. “Where Motivation 2.0 sought compliance, Motivation 3.0 seeks engagement. Only engagement can produce mastery.”

That makes a lot of sense. I hate having to do something out of pure compliance. I want to understand the reasons why things are expected to be done and I want them to be fair. Better yet, I want to be a part of making those decisions. Most teachers feel the same way. But it’s also true that in our classrooms too often “we’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement.”

Pink has some sensible advice to educators. He says we must make sure our students understand why they’re learning the information we’re teaching them and we need to show them its relevance by having them do real-world tasks whenever possible.

But still I wonder, what am I supposed to do when this falls short? What if a student does not want to do a very relevant writing assignment because writing is difficult for him? Just because he doesn’t share that interest, doesn’t mean his teacher is off the hook for teaching it to him. What does she do to motivate him when his intrinsic motivations don’t reach that far?

*               *               *

To get a better idea of Pink’s thesis, watch this incredible video where you can see his writing come alive in a very interesting way:

YouTube Preview Image