Motivation, Part 3
In Part 2 of this letter, I described the approach to motivation taken by advocates of classical or traditional education. Most educators of this tradition appeal to duty, and not to the interests of the child, as the source of motivation. The child is to rise above his own interests, and fulfill his moral obligation to learn.
There is another school of thought that advocates appealing to the child's interests-his fleeting, short-range, childish interests. To the extent that there remains any real academic content in today's schools, I would say this is the primary form of motivation offered. This is the view, in essence, that to make the drudgery and labor of learning palatable to a child, you must offer him immediate rewards for enduring the process. These rewards must tap into his current interests, his childish values, so that he has a clear and present reason for doing the tasks he is assigned.
A wildly popular example of this approach is the "Book It!" program established by Pizza Hut in 1985 and promoted in teachers' colleges to this day. This program, which has been used in 900,000 classrooms by 22 million students, offers children certificates for a personal pan pizza in exchange for meeting a monthly reading goal. In 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported a growing number of such incentive programs in an article titled "For Some Students, the Value of Learning is Measured in Pizzas and Parking Passes." The article quotes a New Mexico English teacher, who says, "It's a terrific idea. Those students who wouldn't ordinarily work for academic achievement are now getting something tangible to work for." It describes the array of reward programs, which offer students everything from a day off, to free food, to orthodontic discounts, to cash.
A 2005 Associated Press article reported a shocking example of this approach, of tapping into teenage values to motivate learning. According to the article, school officials in Baltimore spent $2 million developing a reading program called "Studio Course," which "uses teen magazines, places grammar on the back burner and lets students write about whatever they want." The curriculum includes a teen magazine that defines a noun as "stuff" and a verb as "what stuff does," as well as Cosmo Girl, which at the time when the article was written featured such articles as "Five Hot New Kisses" and "Flirt Better."
This approach, of indulging a child's immediate desires in order to get him to perform academically, falls in the subjectivist tradition. The message sent to children about why they should succeed in school is that it is entirely subjective-that it will get you what you happen to want right now, whatever that may be, whether pizza, video games, money, or lessons on kissing.
So, in education today, there are: first, the Waldorf types who evade the problem of motivation because they evade the responsibility of education; second, the Catholic school types who proclaim education a moral duty; and third, the public school types who think gold stars and pizza provide the only compelling reasons to learn.
Next week, I will offer a rational alterative to these disastrous answers to the question of motivation.