Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Internal vs. external motivation

Motivation is a peculiar thing.

Is it a behavior that is influenced strongly by environment? Or is it more natural -- coming from the character of each person? If someone has little internal motivation naturally, can they be taught to have it?

Tea and I have discussed internal and external motivation quite a bit lately. Her teaching certification exam will test her on educational psychology, so she has been reading up on and studying the topic. And, as an extrovert like me, she likes to discuss the topics she studies in order to process them well. After much discussion and observation of our students, we have come to the conclusion that most students do not have internal motivation regarding their classwork. Most will respond to external motivation like grades or rewards, but their learning will not be as deep, meaningful, or long-lasting as those precious few students who do display internal motivation. Student who cram a list of facts or vocabulary in order to take a test will forget most of what they learned almost as soon as they walk out the door, whereas those who learn the information for the sake of gaining knowledge will keep that knowledge for years to come.

Since most students don't have the needed internal motivation to take ownership of their own learning, external motivation techniques become necessary. For some teacher, that is all the motivation that is used -- grades -- not getting into trouble -- some type of tangible reward. But, if a teacher cares that the students develop into whole, complete people, internal motivation needs to be taught. But can it be?


Good teachers inspire their students to learn for the sake of learning. But can that teacher inspire every student to develop internal motivation and initiative?

I don't think so.

I've been teaching for a long time. At times my enthusiasm for the subject matter I teach has waned, but overall I find that my enthusiasm for the material is contagious. Some students will learn to love what I love just because I show how much love it. Yet, no matter how excited I may be about the language I teach, not all students will catch my enthusiasm. Some still hate the subject. Does that mean that I am an ineffective teacher?

No. It just means that not all subjects are for all students.

But teaching/inspiring internal motivation goes beyond mere subject matter. It also applies to character as it relates to morality and integrity.

In a couple of the classes that I teach with Tea, we have dealt with the students cheating on tests. (A common malady in schools across the country.) While I initially questioned the reason for the lack of school rules and consequences for this behavior, I have since shifted my focus to the need for teaching integrity -- in terms of internally-motivated character development. Doing right just because it is right. That's a tough thing to teach. But Tea and I both feel that it is an important part of education.

After the last cheating episode in the 11th grade class, Tea and I talked with the class (after throwing out that test and writing a new one for them to take) about moral character and uprightness and the importance of doing what is right throughout all of life -- not just in school. After that class discussion, the boy who had spear-headed the methods by which they had cheated on previous tests handed Tea a piece of paper from his backpack. It was the answers to the final test.

At first, Tea was not happy with him for giving her the cheat-sheet, mostly because his attitude of superiority and "look what I have" got under her skin. Yet, as she and I talked about his surrendering the guaranteed good grade, regardless of how he did it, he still did it. Something that we said to the class stuck with him. He ended up failing the test, but I would rather my student fail a test honestly than pass it dishonestly.

I call that progress.

But, is that a sign of developing internal motivation or just an isolated incident of a guilty conscience?

Only time will tell.

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