Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation – I Need Some Points!

What is motivation?

We learned about behaviorist theory in education classes.  B.F. Skinner said we should concern ourselves with observable behavior be it desired, compliant, or disruptive.  Tie those behaviors to extrinsic motivators and classrooms should function perfectly–as long as the motivators are attainable and the desired behaviors are well-defined.  So what happens when neither is the case?  A conversation between a university preservice teacher and a rather astute 13-year old showed who had the better grasp on the failures of behaviorism.

The middle school student, ticked off about the point system for behavior, shared she would not have enough points to attend a reward event at week’s end.  She continuously ran errands and cleaned the classroom when she would much rather sit quietly reading her book, all in hopes of earning more points towards her goal.  Unfortunately, because the cost of 30 points were beyond her reach, she would not be attending a volleyball game, much less eating popcorn and drinking soda.  In her rant, she drove home three rhetorical points that gave me pause.

1) Students with ongoing good behavior are at a disadvantage.  Teachers expect good behavior from them and unconsciously dismiss their “point-earning” achievements such as walking quietly in the hallway or turning in their homework on time.  She shared the example of a quiet, honor student with only nine points.  Strike one.

2) Students who misbehave regularly get noticed.  Teachers reward their good behavior because they want it to continue.  This reward system reinforces a pattern of bad behavior, improve, reward, no reward, who cares, bad behavior, repeat. Strike two.

3) If teachers create an unattainable reward, it impacts behavior more negatively than if there were no stated reward at all.  Strike three.

Change the participants to employers and employees and we are witnessing a perpetually broken system.

So what is motivation?

This 13-year old could discuss what was wrong with extrinsic motivation because, as an avid reader, she knows what it feels like to be intrinsically motivated.  Her bitter-sweet story continued with the description of a classmate who wanted to read a book after watching the movie based on it.  Encouraged by the 13-year old of this post, the classmate checked out the book.  The teacher, concerned with the book’s thickness and the child’s reading level, told the classmate to wait until summer and find something different to read.

“If they would only let her try,” said the 13-year old, shouldering the guilt of motivating a classmate to reach for an unattainable prize.  “She can’t read very well because she doesn’t have faith in herself, and now,” she continued, “the teachers don’t have faith in her either.”

Through her tears of frustration, she showed me what motivation isn’t.

I don’t know if the quiet, honor student will have enough points to see the volleyball game or if the classmate will be allowed to read the book.  I do know a 13-year old who has lost some of her faith.  It is my hope that the preservice teacher can find a way to restore it.

I posted the above blog on 4/22/14 on a different platform, but I still believe in its message and relevance for today’s school.  The resurrection of this post connects to the Map of Meaningful Work by Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris as well as William Glasser’s Choice Theory – two conceptual theories I am intersecting in my research and writing.

The 13-year old is now 18 and has the same sense of justice and fairness as she did six years ago.  I encourage her to keep asking the tough questions.  I hope, as teachers, we continue to try answering them.

Quieting My Mind

The Quiet Mind

On a Sunday morning, my mind is quieting while the hum of cars pass on the nearby country road. 

The sun moves lazily into the late morning.

A thin layer of clouds interrupt the blueness of the sky.  Cirrostratus, perhaps?

The slightest breath blows away the noise and brings with it a conversation among birds. 

The only species I know is the peacock at the neighboring farm, impressing us with his call.  We want him to impress us with his dance.

Small birds march forward on the freshly-mowed lawn, picking remnants for nests.

The sun reaches my shaded seat, warming my back as the breeze increases its power.  

The trees add their rustling to the harmony that is quieting my mind.

The sun moves further, casting shade once again.  

My Inspiration

I am writing this free-form poem after a sequence of events that has magnified the cacophony of 2020.  Wildfires.  COVID-19.  Lawful protests.  Unlawful violence.  Political positioning.  Humanness and humanity.

The spring semester brought fresh challenges of transitioning my courses to an online modality.  The junior year of my daughter was cut short — her job as a resident advisor, her role as a college student, her relationships with friends, instructors, co-workers all changed in an instant.  The two-week spring break for her and for me turned into a scramble to understand how to make the remaining weeks of the semester make sense as a student and as a professor.  Her summer job as a resident advisor is no more, so she will do what she can to get ready for fall, spring, graduation, and beyond while living at home this summer.

My high school senior continued working at the veterinary hospital (with the exception of a few weeks laid off) but disengaged from school.  Her personality and special needs require clear purpose for tasks, even more than most people would expect in such a confusing time.  Answer this question satisfactorily – Why do I have to do this assignment?  I tried, unsuccessfully most of the time.  She finished high school with no pomp and circumstance.  She will move on to college with only our family to mark the momentous occasion.  She now has choices she did not have before: her college, her major, her courses, her schedule.  Purpose fulfilled.  She has taught me more about being a teacher and teacher educator than she will ever know.

In the midst of this end to the school year, we moved.  The 8th grader missed the drive-through graduation.  I think he would rather have had anything else from a drive-through pick up than a diploma.  He was only slightly more engaged than the senior.  Perhaps teachers and parents have a little more influence, power, over 8th graders than seniors.  He did the work.  He passed.  Everyone passed the third trimester.  His new start will be in a different school district, not knowing anyone, but he seems okay with that.  It must be easier to move if you’ve been closed off from friends since March 17.

The parents in the household worry about the economy, our livelihood.  We worry about the political climate, the social unrest, the people, the businesses, the first responders.  We live peacefully but know that others do not and cannot.  How we respond becomes a model for our children.

And so I sit in the country, not so quiet with the mowers, birds, and cars, to quiet my mind, to center my focus, to meditate my response with and for the world around me.  My children at home and my students in my classroom depend on my response to be the right one.