Drive: What Makes Students Want to Learn?

The other day, I watched an animated mini-lecture about motivation on the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) website. The lecture was called Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. The speaker, Daniel Pink, is the author of a book by the same title.

A video of the complete lecture is also available at RSA (41:23).

In his talk, Pink refers to past studies showing that punishment and reward work well for simple, straightforward tasks but not for tasks requiring creative thinking. This insight seems relevant to education. Pink cites other studies in Israel, Massachusetts, and India that indicate punishment can even encourage the very behavior it was meant to discourage, and that reward, money for example, produces positive results but only to a point, beyond which it produces negative results. It seems money isn’t everything, something that teachers understand completely. Pink is specifically addressing the workplace, but again, the insights and questions he raises seem equally important for students in the classroom.

Pink distinguishes between extrinsic (punishment and reward) and intrinsic (self) motivation. With some students, classroom motivation is never an issue. What drives them is not always clear. At times it’s a total mystery. In any case, the motivation, extrinsic or intrinsic, is coming from somewhere other than the classroom. When they finish an assignment, they often ask what they can do next.

On the other hand, some students are hard to motivate. I subbed in a high school biology class and watched one student do nothing for the entire period. He was polite, answered my questions, and agreed with me that he could be doing something. “He’s like that,” said another teacher. “This is his second year in biology and he won’t pass this year either.” This same student, however, was close to earning a black belt in karate.

What explains the difference? Why does a student who doesn’t seem to care about grades care about a black belt? I’ll return to this question.

In business, Pink suggests that employers who want to encourage self-motivation should pay employees enough to get the issue of money off the table so that the employees think about work and not about money. Money is the extrinsic motivator. What follows when the issue of money is resolved are the intrinsic motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Right away we can see a difference between the workplace and the classroom. When I tell my son that school is his job, he doesn’t buy my metaphor. He doesn’t get paid. Should I expect him to equate grades and wages? Should I pay him for good grades? North Carolina is considering paying students for attendance, good behavior, and good grades . Is a thousand dollars per year for twelve years enough to motivate students? Is every student willing to work hard for the same reward? Syracuse, New York’s Say Yes to Education compact is another way to encourage student performance. Students who attend 10th, 11th and 12th grade and graduate from a Syracuse City School District high school are eligible for free college tuition at more than 100 Say Yes compact colleges in New York state. Paying students for academic achievement was also examined in a segment of the video Freakonomics. The results of the Freakonomics trial suggest that money will motivate some and not others.

And what of the failing bio student? He’s demonstrated a willingness to invest considerable time and effort to develop skill in martial arts. My guess is that he’s not being paid for his pains. As Pink explains, many of us pursue self-selected interests on our own time for free. The motivation is intrinsic: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intrinsic motivation is produces its own reward.

For students who aren’t motivated to work hard in the classroom, extrinsic motivation will likely be hit or miss. Reward might work for some, but what form should it take? Punishment is not likely to work at all.

Intrinsic motivation seems more promising, but how can it be fostered? Can it even be fostered across the board in all students? The activities we pursue in our free time are our own. The careers we chose are our own. Maybe it’s time to recognize that students are no different from the rest of us. We’re driven by our obsessions.

All kids are prepared to work hard at what interests them. Maybe what we need to do is make the connections between isolated subjects so clear that what seems abstract and unrelated becomes less abstract and more related. I’ve seen this happen most often with interdisciplinary activities, either independent or with self-selected small groups. Interdisciplinary activities provide the latitude to pursue obsessions while requiring necessary basic skills.

Would a failing biology student warm to a project in anatomy and physiology if he could tie it to karate? It would be an experiment worth trying.

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