Motivation, Part 1
The following is from an article featured in the education section of USA Today on January 28, 2008:
"Teachers have long said that success is its own reward. But these days, some students are finding that good grades can bring them cash and luxury gifts. In at least a dozen states this school year, students who bring home top marks can expect more than just gratitude. Examples:
- Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams.
- In New York City, about 9,000 fourth- and seventh-graders in 60 schools are eligible to win as much as $500 for improving their scores on the city's English and math tests, given throughout the school year.
- In suburban Atlanta, a pair of schools last week kicked off a program that will pay 8th- and 11th-grade students $8 an hour for a 15-week 'Learn & Earn' after-school study program (the federal minimum wage is currently $5.85)."
This article, which understandably makes many parents and educators bristle, raises a real and important question: How do we motivate our children to learn? In my lecture "Motivation in Education," I addressed the "cash for grades" and other desperately misguided attempts at motivation. I boiled the motivation theorists down to three essential categories, which I will explain over the next few weeks.
The first category includes those who attempt to create "motivated" students by allowing them to engage in activities of their choice, activities that are inherently enjoyable given their juvenile desires.
The Waldorf Schools, for example, say that until the age of seven, children should be taught no academic skills, including reading or writing. Instead, they are encouraged to participate in activities believed to be natural to their stage of development, such as finger-knitting, storytelling, and movement games. The FAQ section of a Waldorf charter school says that at Waldorf Schools "abstraction and conceptual teaching are kept to a minimum, especially with younger children. In this way children become more personally engaged in whatever they are learning." (emphasis added)
An Atlantic Monthly article praising the virtues of the Waldorf method describes the activities of a dozen fourth graders in the original Waldorf school. "The class was finishing a year-long project: making mallets for wood carving out of stubborn pieces of hardwood, which they were patiently filing and sanding by hand. One boy, who had finished his mallet, was making a knife out of teak, and regularly paused to feel its smoothness on his cheek." The author also respectfully describes the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old Waldorf student in a depressed California town, saying, "[He] sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he'd been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize."
These children are-in a sense-"motivated," but motivated to do what?
To say that a person is motivated is to say that he has some drive or desire that incites action. For the purposes of a rational discussion of education, that drive or desire must incite the ambition to learn. It must incite the drive to acquire knowledge-and not just any knowledge, but that knowledge necessary for life as an adult human being.
Motivation cannot be confused with any feeling of eagerness, enthusiasm, or joy independent of the focus of those feelings of the purpose of the action they incite. The manager of a company would not describe his employees as motivated if they were eager and excited to come to work every day so that they could play basketball in the company gym or spread gossip in the break room. A motivated employee is one who is inspired to action consistent with the central goal of his job.
Similarly, it is not relevant to a meaningful discussion of motivation in education to discuss the suggestion that the problem of motivation be solved by offering children a program of all-day recess. This is not a solution to the problem; it is an evasion of the problem.
In the next newsletter, I will describe another theory of motivation-in this case, a wrongheaded and disastrous approach to motivating real academic content.