Monday, March 17, 2008

Got Motivation? Not in this environment!

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about what must be done to motivate students. How do we “get them to perform” on standardized tests? How do we “get them to achieve” at grade level? How do we “get them to behave” according to the rules and regulations of the school?

There’s a growing trend out there to bring money into the conversation. Our neighbors in New York City and Baltimore are experimenting with paying students for their test performance. In schools in DC, students are rewarded with pizza parties for good attendance. And in classrooms across the country students participate in “behavior modification systems” designed to recognize good rule-followers with sticker charts and prizes.

Though some of the approaches are new, the philosophy from which they are born is not. Over the past several years we’ve begun to operate under the assumption that kids need to be bribed into “doing well” in school. Perhaps this is because going to school isn’t very inspiring these days.

In many instances we’ve traded the joys of art, music, PE, even recess for more “instructional time” devoted to math and language arts. We’ve abandoned field trips for the same reason. In order to maximize this instructional time, we’ve had to minimize class disruptions so we’ve grown more strict about keeping students in their seats and off their feet. We have so much to cover in a school year; there’s no time for deviating from the standard curriculum so students’ individual interests cannot be pursued unless they happen to fit within the content we’re required to teach. And now we’re in the thick of testing season with the added pressure of filling any available mind space with the facts kids need to do well on the big exams. And we as teachers will be judged much more by how students do on these tests than they will.

If you were a student in this environment you might need an incentive to get up in the morning and go to school. (Indeed, all the talk of merit pay implies teachers need that push as well.) At a young age you might not question being bought for a slice of pizza, extra recess time, or a couple of bucks.

But when you grow up and get into the real world, nobody pays you to be a good parent. If you get paid to go to college, it’s only because you’ve worked hard to be a strong student or athlete. You get paid to work, but nobody pays you to have the right qualifications for the job, or the motivation to keep it. No one is going to hand out checks to folks who treat their spouses and family members with dignity. You don’t get a pizza party for showing up to a meeting on time.

While there are often short-term rewards for the prizes and payoffs we currently use to keep students “on track” in school, there may also be real long-term problems associated with failing to instill intrinsic motivation in our young people.

We can only build the intrinsic motivation to learn in our students if we make the learning itself an appealing option. As a student, I can look forward to going to school because I want to know what happens in the next chapter of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or because I am excited about the building project we’re doing in geometry. I can even look forward to going to school to take the test if I know it will give me an opportunity to show off how smart I’ve become this year. But if I’m asked to go to school to meet AYP, you’re going to have to sweeten the deal for me because that goal has nothing to do with what matters to me as a young person.

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