Why We Do What We do: Motivation

Motivation is the cause of actions. It is what drives behavior. In the world of education, understanding motivation is the necessary starting place. The methods don’t matter if students don’t want to learn, so how do we increase students’ desire to learn? Let’s start by learning about motivation itself.

Traditionally, our understanding of motivation has been split into two categories: extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation derives its power to compel action from external sources. Extrinsic motivation is most simply seen in rewards and punishments used to increase or decease specific behaviors. In most educational settings, extrinsic motivation is widely used for classroom management. The use of sticker charts, pizza parties, and extended recesses are examples of rewards given to increase positive behaviors. Punishments—such as, no recess, time outs and bad grades—are sources of extrinsic motivation used to decrease undesirable behaviors.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is a property of a behavior that is rewarding in and of itself. When it comes to intrinsic motivation, we are not concerned with positive or negative outcomes; we simply enjoy the activity. In most educational settings, intrinsic motivation is difficult to nurture. Some students love to write, others love to draw, some students come to school for gym, while others can’t wait to go to science. The normative, structured nature of classrooms and schools make it difficult to allow students to pursue activities that are intrinsically motivated.

If learning is our desired outcome, how do we find the best balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? Is one better than the other? How do we deal with the practical realities of the typical classroom?

 

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