It’s a curious fact of life in education that there is little ground on which there is complete consensus. Opinion varies on just about every aspect of educating children from curriculum design to pedagogy, behaviour modification to assessment. There are myriad approaches, many based in evidence of one form or another, that can be latched onto and paraded as the answer in the complex field of human flourishing, but nothing alone that can claim hallowed ground.
The way in which we develop motivation in the young children in our care is arguably one of the most contested issues in education. Whether we favour the non-personalised rewards and punishments that support extrinsic motivation or the persistent nurturing characteristic of the development of intrinsic motivation, helps to shape who we are as teachers. It also contributes significantly to a child’s overall experience of school life.
It is interesting to observe that many teachers (and parents) value greatly the intrinsic motivation that children develop in the right circumstances. We all tend to agree that we want children to be able to act and make decisions without the need for external rewards and sanctions. We want them to be enjoying learning for its own sake and developing healthy interests that they can pursue beyond the school gates. But are we making the best use of what we know about motivation?
Several studies have revealed that when we incentivise a child’s behaviour we actually reduce intrinsic motivation (see here for starters). It’s hard to find any positive justification for doing this. (Find out more in this article on Psychology Today). But what are the alternatives that truly work to cultivate intrinsic motivation? What will encourage persistence, and adherence to a long term goal, if extrinsic motivation isn’t worth our time and effort?
The good news is that it is possible to focus children on intrinsic motivation. While self-knowledge will ultimately be what serves us best in the long run, in the meantime we can boost this by trying these strategies:
- Helping children to see where, in the grand scheme of things, their current learning sits. What does it lead to? What will it enable them to do? What freedoms will it help them to acquire?
- Helping children to see the part they play in the bigger picture. Do they have ambitions to achieve or become? How will those ambitions contribute to the greater good? How will they feel when they have reached their goals?
- Exploring ways in which the curriculum, and the pedagogical tools we adopt, support the pursuit of burning interests. Is it possible to offer children time and techniques to explore what grabs them from the learning they have done? Where are the spaces in which we can exploit their existing intrinsic motivation?
- Offering the opportunity to get involved in local and national competitions and challenges. There are many for all ages and stages of learning, some with impressive prizes, and getting involved can boost motivation tremendously.
- Celebrating what children are good at, whether that is part of the curriculum or not. This might be in class, in assembly, through newsletters, the local paper, social media posts and so on.
- Giving children the opportunity to teach younger classes, perhaps by creating reading or maths buddies, so that they can see and feel how far they have come in their own learning.
- Building confidence in their ability to progress – banishing the negative self-talk. All learning and development is a series of steps…
- Offering the chance for children to listen to experts talking about how they became leaders in their field.
- Helping children to recognise how they feel about small successes along the way.
- Sharing how we as adults and teachers motivate ourselves without relying on external rewards and punishments.
Naturally, not all ideas will work for all, just as not all rewards appeal to all and not all sanctions deter all. This is as much about helping children and young people to develop self-knowledge as it is about anything, and that can only be a positive step.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.