Developing Self-Motivation

...when you're tired of the carrot-and-stick approach!

An article by Fran Kick

When do learning experiences capture the interest and commitment of students? What engages people and motivates them to learn? Are we carrot-and-sticking ourselves to death, creating more of a “what’s in it for me” kind of attitude? How can teachers increase commitment, drive, and cooperation in the classroom? How do students intrinsically develop the self-motivation to succeed on their own?

Before we look into answering these questions, perhaps we should define what motivation is. The word motivation is based on the word “motive” (as in what’s your motive?) and too many times gets bantered about without a true understanding of what it means.

There are two types of motivation. Both are important to understand when it comes to teaching and learning.

External motivation (a.k.a. manipulation)

The first and more commonly misunderstood type is extrinsic motivation. As the word “extrinsic” implies (as in external), this type of motivation comes from an outside source. It is usually dependent on someone or something to get you going. Let’s say I wanted to motivate you to clean up the room (pick up any trash off the floor). I can either create an incentive or threaten you to do what I want you to do. On the one hand, I could offer you $100 for every piece of trash you pick up and throw away. Would you do it? You bet! In fact, I’d have a whole bunch of people willing to help you out, picking up more trash, and thoroughly cleaning the room (windows too!), and even coming back to ask if there was anything else they could do!

On the other hand if I pulled out a gun, fired a few shots to show you that it was real, pointed the gun to your head and asked you to pick up the trash in the room – would you do it? You bet! But, I don’t think I’d have anyone else volunteering to help you out. You’d just pick up the trash (you wouldn’t clean the windows), and I don’t think you’d be asking if there was anything else you could do! You’d be out of there and chances are you wouldn’t come back!

Positive or negative, I could get you to do what I want you to do. Clearly the money works better than the gun because the positive works better than the negative. But, both are extrinsically motivated and will only work if you’re interested in the incentive or threatened by the punishment. Therefore, they are limited in their effectiveness overall. Maybe that’s why the more extrinsic motivation (positive or negative) an individual experiences, the more they start to think… “Why should I do it for you? What will I get if I do?” or “What will you do if I don’t?” This kind of attitude certainly supports the “what’s in it for me” mentality in the world.

According to Alfie Kohn, extrinsic motivation is actually just a form of manipulation. Something someone does to others to get them to do what they want. That’s not self-motivation! Self-motivated students are not waiting for someone to carrot-and-stick them into doing what needs to be done. They (in the words of Nike®) JUST DO IT! They have an internal, ever-present, inspiring desire to make things happen.

Internal motivation (a.k.a. self-motivation)

The second type of motivation is intrinsic motivation, which is different from extrinsic motivation because it originates from within an individual. In terms of learning, research has shown that intrinsic motivation is more desirable than extrinsic motivation because it is self originating, self sustaining and self rewarding.

You may be asking, “How do I intrinsically motivate students to do what I want them to do?” But perhaps that isn’t even the right question to ask because of what we now know about intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation

In all honesty you can’t motivate other people! That sounds ironic coming from someone who is known as a motivational speaker, but the truth is you can only try to extrinsically motivate other people. The key word is “try,” because if the incentive isn’t big enough or the threat isn’t great enough, they won’t do it!

You cannot intrinsically motivate other people because they are already intrinsically motivated! That’s right! Everyone acts as they do because of the payoffs they receive. Others may not agree with or understand what those payoffs are, but everyone does what they do for a reason, and it helps to know that people are motivated for their own reasons and not yours!

The question “How do I intrinsically motivate students to do what I want them to do?” might be stated more appropriately by asking, “How do I create an environment in which students will motivate themselves?” As teachers, our job is to facilitate learning by establishing the conditions, coordinating the resources, and bringing to life the curriculum with the students not just for them.

William Lofquist in his work explains different approaches to working with students in terms of a spectrum of adult attitudes toward young people. These three attitudes involve how teachers interact with students based on their view of students as being objects, recipients or resources. These viewpoints can positively or negatively influence not only students’ attitudes, but also the quality of motivation within a group.

Students as objects, recipients, or resources

Inspiring individuals to get more involved is often very difficult if students are treated as objects. The teacher is in control and has no intention of letting the group be more involved. Conformity of the class and their acceptance of the program as it is under the teacher’s direction is the by-product while control is the main goal. A paradox results when the teachers find themselves always telling people what to do and when to do it while at the same time the students are sick and tired of being told what to do and when to do it! The teacher’s lament becomes “why do I always have to tell everyone what to do? Why can’t they figure it out on their own? Nobody does anything unless I tell them to.” The reason is because the students weren’t given a chance to think for themselves.

Whenever students are seen as recipients, the teacher is still in control but “allows” students or members in the group to be involved “somewhat.” The teacher’s approach emphasizes how the students will benefit from participating in what the teacher has set up for them. This perspective is based on the teacher’s notion that they know what’s best for the students and will decide how everything will be done. The teacher sets everything up and lets the students participate. Occasionally students might be given the opportunity to provide feedback or share in the decision making process (however limited it may be). While this attitude is more “involving of others,” there still is a sense of the teacher’s making all of the decisions for the students. A real “I’ve-taken-your-ideas-into-consideration-and-here’s-what-I’ve-decided-we’re-going-to-do” kind of approach.” The students still do not have a sense of ownership in their own education.

When students are viewed as resources, the relationship is based on a teacher’s respect for the contribution each student in the group can make. The teacher, whenever possible, shares in a more collaborative approach with the students. The attitude of working with the students is based on a level of respect for the contribution students can make to the planning, operation, and evaluation of the group. The teacher is constantly facilitating a culture in the classroom in which each student is respected and involved as a significantly contributing member of the group. Intrinsic motivation is cultivated in this type of atmosphere.

Carrot-and-sticking vs. collaborating

So when do learning experiences capture the interest and commitment of students? Perhaps it’s when learning is collaborative. Everyone is seen as being important, significant, contributing resources in a process that’s intrinsically satisfying vs. just extrinsically rewarding. Isn’t the ultimate goal to make learning something that’s rewarding in and of itself? Can that happen if we’re constantly carrot-and-sticking students to do what we want them to do? Involving the students in making something happen goes beyond simply maintaining control in the classroom. When teachers create classroom or learning environments that give students an opportunity to participate actively in making choices, students see themselves as a more active member of the group. Their sense of autonomy, commitment, drive, cooperation and desire all increase – internally. Thus resulting in a higher level of self-motivation to KICK IT IN!

FRAN KICK has been inspiring people to KICK IT IN® and TAKE THE LEAD since 1986. With a B.A. in Education, a M.A. in Educational Psychology, and three children of his own, Fran knows What Makes Kids KICK!

© 2006 Fran Kick. Used with permission. www.kickitin.com

Permission to use this article:

This article is offered to you free of charge to reprint or repost, on a non-exclusive non-commercial basis, provided the bio, copyright notice, name and web site URL are included. Feel free to use it in your organization newsletter, professional journal, magazine, newspaper and any other print or electronic serial publication.

PDF File Icon PDF version of this article