I have a different understanding of motivation now. Now I would define motivation as a neutral term, a descriptor of how inclined someone is to do something. It describes the internal state of a person, and that can vary over time. And that simple shift suddenly turned something that was scary for me into a useful tool. Here are some of the implications:
1) A student may not be motivated in math class in general, but they can be highly motivated to play a math game. So we can talk about motivation specific to an activity, or we can talk about motivation more generally over time.
2) Having high motivation means someone is more likely to do something, and that can come from both positive and negative forces. Enjoying something clearly raises motivation. Having success, even if you don’t love what you are doing, can also raise motivation, as can the promise of some reward, like prize tickets, a salary or praise (relationship). Those first two are often the gold standard of motivation, because they have the possibility of creating a self-rewarding activity, which will naturally build motivation every time you do the activity.
3) On the negative side, wanting to avoid negative consequences - the threat of punishment, shame, peer pressure, bad grades, etc. - can also raise motivation, but often the work is joyless or worse, and is much less likely to become self-rewarding. I think we are too casual about using this type of motivation in schools. It is the easiest, because a lot of that is already in place in the classroom, and it doesn’t take any additional thought or planning. Not that we shouldn’t use it, but we should also leverage some of the other options in proportion.
4) Having low motivation can come from not enjoying or being engaged by the activity naturally, frequently failing at the activity, experiencing shame while doing the activity, not understanding or feeling in control, experiencing the activity as random or unfair … is this starting to sound familiar? Many of our students who “don’t like math” experience math class like this every day. These factors actively depress whatever natural motivation there might be without them.
So think about motivation like a cell phone battery. It has a certain charge when you pick it up in the morning. And then I can choose to use the phone and draw down on the battery, or I can charge the phone and build the battery. Student motivation - their inclination to do something - works similarly. It starts at a certain level: students who love math class or had a good night’s sleep come in with a higher level of motivation to begin with. And then we can do things that either draw the charge down or build the charge up.
It might make sense to start the class with activities that build motivation. Or start each new class segment with a motivation builder. We know during class we are going to ask the students to do things that are challenging and take effort, and they may have moments of failure or frustration. All of these are likely to drain away some of their motivation, some students more than others. If we regularly pace our classes with motivation building, over time we may increase the baseline motivation for some of those struggling students (as well as everyone else).
What are some ways we can build motivation? Creating opportunities for early success is one we use in teaching all the time. When working with a student one on one, starting with easier problems and moving gradually to harder ones is a natural move. With a whole class, starting with problems or questions that allow for a range of correct responses is way to do this. Notice and Wonder has become a popular teacher move because of this very issue. Asking students “What do you notice…?” and “What do you wonder…?” about problems, worked examples, visual models, tables, graphs, etc. is like starting a hike on a gradual slope rather than starting at the steep part. “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” Is another popular prompt that invites students to share their thinking with a greater chance of feeling successful.
Any part of any lesson can begin with these kinds of questions, asking the students to observe and reflect and giving them a chance to share their thoughts and ask questions before we go on. This is not “there are no right answers in math class” or dumbing down the content. This is meeting students were they are so we can bring them along to the next stage of learning. This is building motivation for more difficult work.
Supportive relationships with our students are another way we build motivation. Greeting students at the door, talking to them sincerely, clear and consistent expectations, and many other pieces of classroom management are behind the scenes when a teacher has students who “will work for them.” The students are really working for themselves in an environment that makes that easier and more comfortable. Sincere and specific praise for quality work and encouragement for quality effort are also a part of this, as is taking time to teach self-advocacy skills.
Fun and enjoyment also build motivation. Not everything in math class can be fun, nor should it… but that doesn’t change the fact that fun is motivating. I use that as a reminder to take notice of activities that are high academic value and also fun… and to put some effort into coming up with those activities when I might not naturally be so inclined.
Rewards and the threat of negative consequences are also strategies we can use to build motivation. But the threat of negative consequences seems to require a lot of force for relatively little and short-lived effect, and has relational side effects that diminish motivation over time. Grades may be necessary for other reasons but they are often not effective for building motivation in the students that need it most - the negative effects are long-lasting and hard to recover from.
“Motivational talk” about distant and vague rewards that we deliver to students both in groups and individually also seems to have little impact, in general. What we are asking of students with these talks is discipline. Discipline is the ability to do something when you have low motivation, and lots of our students lack discipline too. Building discipline works better if you start with motivation as high as you can get it. While negative consequences or lectures are sometimes an appropriate response, I think they are best as short-term as possible, allowing the student to get back to building motivation.
Overall, spending time looking for and building our skill in using positive ways to build motivation is the best investment of our time and effort.
I would now say I had low motivation to acknowledge motivation. But instead of asking, “How do I motivate my students?” I can now ask “How can I build motivation in each of my students?” This subtle shift opens my eyes to lots of options and makes the job feel doable. I can effect my students’ motivation “battery levels” in lots of different ways that are not about charisma, or force, or convincing them it will be worth it someday. Meeting them where they are and building success by my choice of problems and questions is probably my number one tool. Second is paying attention to pacing, and starting with motivation building tasks. With those tools I can create a classroom environment in which students feel encouraged to try and are able to grow both their motivation and the discipline to tackle challenging math content.