Patrick Riley


Chicago, IL

Interests: Classroom management,...

  • Posted 7 Years ago
  • 6.4k

Intrinsic Motivation, or Lack Thereof

I’ve now completed my fourth week of student teaching, and one of the recurring themes I keep running into in educational cyberspace as well as in school is that of intrinsic motivation for students.  One of my previous posts discussed the use of incentives based classroom management strategies as a tool to create a positive learning environment.  There were some comments that I received decrying the use of these tools, describing them as mere gimmicks to get students to the classroom and that there should be pedagogical concepts applied to instill some sort of intrinsic motivation for students.

While this all sounds nice on paper, and I’m sure works very well in certain settings, I’ve found that it does not manifest itself as well in students from an urban setting.  Many times, students do not have that foundation of support from their family, friends, and others in their network.  If you’re eager to apply theory to the thought, then look at it from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In order to move up the pyramid, one needs to accomplish the things on the bottom levels first.  The bottom level includes physiological needs like, breathing, food, water, etc.  The next level up is safety, which includes security, family, health, etc.  For many students in an urban environment, their progress up the pyramid stops there, which makes it difficult for them to even have a desire to be successful in the classroom, when so much is going wrong outside of school.

There are so many factors that are out of the control of the teacher, and make it difficult to produce this successful and dynamic product, your student.  As I have discussed with others before, students sometimes get treated like widgets on paper, and people forget that there are real people involved and a basic business model cannot always be applied to education, as so many would like to do.

Having said that, this is why I think its important to create that positive learning environment for students, and if that includes using such tools as incentives based class management tools, then so be it.  If that allows you, as an educator, to make a better connection with your students, then that is a good thing, and should not be glossed over so quickly.


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11 Oct 11, 09:14 AM

Thanks for posting such a thoughtful blog. I teach first grade and I could certainly relate to what you said about the needs on Maslow's hierarchy needing to be met before a student can move on. My goal would be to teach using intrinsic motivation but I believe at the younger grades, it usually begins with extrinsic motivation. I appreciated Walter McKenzie's thoughts on the importance of transitioning from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.

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21 Feb 11, 04:02 PM

Great Blog. Interesting topic.

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13 Oct 10, 06:02 PM

Hi Patrick.... Keep up the good work. I am impressed with your need to understand what motivates your students. I had this same conflict when I was in my first year of teaching 13 years ago. To this day I think about my students (as well as my teachers) and what motivates them. I am currently working in a PBS school which, as you might know, begins with "extrinsic" rewards, with the hopes of moving students to becoming more "intrinsically" motivated over time. When we first adopted this program, I struggled with the idea. I found myself reading Alfie Kohn (etc...) to try to decide whether or not PBS was the right "program" for us. Although there are parts of PBS I can appreciate, there are also parts I struggle with, like the use of extrinsic rewards. I would like to encourage you to find balance in what you are doing (as you mentioned above) if that helps you make connections with students, but realize that we are all inherently curious and inquisitive. We all, on some level, crave knowledge and understanding of our world. Tap into the interests of your students, and find out what interests them (and what motivates them), and use what you learn from them to drive your instruction and your practice. I am currently reading "Drive" by Daniel Pink. I have learned alot about motivation from this book, and I think you might find it interesting. Best of luck in your student teaching!

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06 Oct 10, 08:19 AM

Patrick I can totally empathize with this post. I too student taught in an urban setting, albeit 25 years ago. In my experience, motivating students who are not getting some of their basic needs met that you mention is a long-term process. What has worked for me, both in student teaching and then in my own classroom career, is to begin with extrinsic incentives and slowly move students from those immediate, material hooks towards more intrinsic, sustainable motivation. The trick is in the transition....creating extrinsic rewards that are coupled with the building of personal pride and accomplishment in one's work. By the end of the school year you can look back and see appreciable gains in how students have developed internal value for learning and achievement.

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04 Oct 10, 02:49 PM

I don’t to be accused of piling on, but add my name to the list of those who would hope you’ll abandon the use of extrinsic motivation and continue to find ways to tap into the intrinsic motivation of your learners. The use of rewards in the classroom typically works well – in the short run. If your goal is to get through the next class, then an external reward may serve you well even though I believe it does very little to help your students learn. If, however, you are looking beyond today and hope to help students develop behaviors and values they can take with them beyond their life in school, rewards for learning are counterproductive.

You begin your post with the comment that you have just completed your 4th week of student teaching. I’m commenting after spending 34 years in public education. The research is compelling. Reward systems inhibit intrinsic motivation, impede creativity, and increase learner stress. I don’t want to be presumptive, but I’m guessing that’s not your goal. As hard as it might be, don’t give up. Find ways to tap into the intrinsic motivation your students already have. Kids from an impoverished environment, kids from depressed urban settings, and kids with families that are incapable of providing the kind of support we wish every student had are still intrinsically motivated. As I discuss in "Activating the Desire to Learn" and "The Motivated Student," our job as teachers is to help kids unleash the desire to learn that is inside each of us.

By the way, I have worked closely with a school in one of the most troubled parts of Baltimore. Think The Wire and you are in the right neighborhood. The teachers in that school made the transition from external rewards (and punishments) to a model based on internal control psychology. Five years later, they are still thriving, have far fewer disciplinary problems, and the students are doing better than expected on standardized tests. And the teachers are enjoying their jobs way more.

I wish you great success as you enter this challenging and so-important profession.

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