The Charms That Motivate Our Students

In the right light I can see little charms floating in the air above the heads of my students. Some of these charms depict keys and others fire. Some are handcuffs and others treasure. Some students have more than one — people are complicated, after all — but in my experience one charm usually dominates the others. You can learn to see them, too. The charms reflect each student’s why. The charms help me understand my students’ motivation.

More plainly now, students are motivated to work hard for any number of reasons, some of those reasons healthier than others. Most everyone understands that motivation can be internal or external, and that in general, internal is preferable. Our mission at Heart of Character is to champion practices that promote this internalization, but importantly, motivation is more nuanced than the either/or of internal versus external. Furthermore, not all forms of internalized motivation are equally desirable. For example, I can usually expect that a handful of proud parents during conferences will say something to this effect, “We don’t even ask her about her homework. She’s entirely self-motivated.” Good for her and for them, but I’ve known many of these students, and their anxiety-fueled motivation reflects deep fear rather than academic curiosity. They are handcuffed to the internalized expectations of other people, often their parents but not always. We all know these students. They are fearful and stressed out, and if you look closely, you can see floating above their heads a charm that depicts a tiny pair of handcuffs. I worry a lot about these kids. I’ll bet you do, too.

Parents of students with a tiny sack of treasure floating over their heads, on the other hand, are frustrated. During conferences they grumble about their children’s apathy, complaining that they only buckle down and work when bribed by rewards (i.e., sack of treasure) or threatened with punishment. This is external motivation of the sort most of us are familiar with — the proverbial carrots and sticks of operant conditioning. Why do we bribe our kids? Why do we threaten them? Well, because bribes and threats work…sort of. They work in the same way that pushing your car makes it go forward. It’s simple (just push) albeit difficult (cars are heavy), unsustainable in the long term, and when you quit pushing, the car stops moving. Over time, some parents conclude that the only way to make their car move is to push, that their car (or their kid) is a lemon. It’s a frustrating state of affairs for everyone, and if it goes on long enough, we might even forget that cars are specially designed to move on their own.

Neither handcuffs nor treasure are especially healthy sources of motivation. Both are coercive and alienating, threats to our need for autonomy and belonging, respectively. If you do a mental survey of your class rosters, you can probably see the little handcuffs and sacks of treasure hovering over some of your students’ faces. Some of your students, yes, but not all. No doubt some are motivated because they perceive the utility of academic work. It is useful and valuable to them, not as an end in itself, perhaps — for example, pitifully few of my students found physics intrinsically interesting — but certainly as a means to some other end that they do value. Hard work that leads to academic success is a key, and that key can unlock doors they wish to pass through. In many of our schools, those doors are admissions to fine colleges and universities. Notice the qualitative difference between keys and handcuffs or treasure. When motivated by keys, our students’ motives belong to them. They are not bought with treasure or coerced by shame.  It is more properly internal. If you return to your class roster, you will certainly see little keys floating above the faces of some of your students.

At this point you might ask, “What about the kids who just just enjoy school? They are curious, diligent, and embrace hard work because that’s just the kind of people they are.” They aren’t seeking reward or avoiding shame or even looking ahead to some future goal. They seem to have internalized the values of academic work, as if those values have seeped into their very bones. You might have a few of these students in your class, but they are rare in school-age children. They are rare, not because enjoying school for its own sake is such an outrageous idea, but because internalizing values requires time and a level of identity formation that doesn’t happen for most people until they are older. Consider your own life. You probably often act out of values that, on inspection, are inseparable from your identity. They are so thoroughly integrated into your self-concept that it’s difficult to identify tangible motives for many of your actions because your motives often aren’t tangible at all. Your actions are simply a natural extension of who you are. Perhaps your school has a few of these precocious treasures. They are old souls who impress us all with their “premature maturity.” Look for the charm depicting a small bone hovering over their heads. It symbolizes the integration of social values into the self.

Finally, there is fire. Perhaps you are blessed with a few students who find your subject matter so inherently fascinating and your style of teaching so validating and empowering that they burn with true intrinsic motivation. They read more than you require. They do extra projects. They continue learning even after the class finishes. They might not always get the best grades because, unlike those motivated by handcuffs or keys, they aren’t especially driven by academic achievement. Do you have a few of these students on your roster? I hope you do. Sometimes burning intrinsic motivation is held up as the ideal, as if talented teachers should be capable of setting the minds of every child ablaze with curiosity and wonder. Please, do yourself a favor and let yourself off that hook. Intrinsic motivation can certainly be snuffed out by bad teaching, but it cannot be promised even by the best. Intrinsic motivation requires a certain alchemical reaction between the subject matter and the idiosyncrasies of a singular mind. Just be grateful when you see a student with a small flame dancing above their head. Those students are manna from heaven in the working life of any educator.

Good teachers meet students where they are and shepherd them all forward. Recognizing what motivates our students — seeing those little charms over their heads — can help us do that. In a future post I will link this typology of motivation (treasure, handcuffs, keys, bones, and fire) with teaching practices that promote wellbeing and a greater degree of internalization.

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