In survey after survey, business leaders are clear about what they’re looking for in employees. They want creative, dynamic, and independent thinkers. They want people who work well with a variety of people. And, importantly, they don’t want to hire people who need to be motivated and managed. They want people who are driven and can manage themselves.
Of course, there are still plenty of fairly rote, linear jobs that don’t require much self-motivation, creativity, or interpersonal skills. These are the very jobs, however, that are quickly being automated.
And yet, many schools and classrooms continue to look an awful lot like training grounds for assembly-line factory workers. Kids spend a lot of time doing work that others (teachers or education curriculum companies) have designed and being motivated, managed, and challenged by others (teachers, primarily).
Along the way, students’ creative fires are quenched and their intrinsic motivation is crushed. They learn to follow directions, meet the requirements of rubrics, follow someone else’s rules, and work for grades. They stop challenging themselves, opting instead for the easiest way to meet goals that others have set. Do you need to see this with your own eyes? Walk through classrooms in your school district. Begin in Pre-K classrooms and notice how students enter the room and engage with work. They’re fired up and self-motivated. They want to paint, draw, build, create, and play. They’ve got work to do and they can’t wait to get started. Then move up through the grades. You’ll likely see students less motivated and less engaged. They’re trained by praise and stickers in elementary school and by grades in later years. As they have less choice about their work and learn to be judged by others, they lose motivation and need to be motivated (bribed, coerced, and threatened) by others into doing work. By the time they’re in high school, they’ve likely either disengaged or embraced the system, allowing themselves to be artificially motivated. They’re failing or they’re compliant worker bees—succeeding in school but not preparing for the self-motivation and self-management required in the workplace.
So how do we help move away from teaching and learning that seems to celebrate compliance over engagement? How do we create classrooms where students are self-motivated and can manage themselves? Here are a few ideas to consider.
Create Collaborative Rules
Instead of telling kids what your rules are (which encourages defiance or obedience) or not having rules (which invites chaos), create rules with your students. Invest time early in the year helping students articulate an ideal learning environment—where students are excited about learning and can work well with others. Then create rules that help create this kind of learning environment. Check out the first few minutes of this video for one example of how to do this. All year long, use the rules as the guiding norms for the room. Why do we treat others respectfully? Because that’s how we create a room where all learners can thrive. Why do we work hard? Because it’s how we show respect for ourselves and reach for our goals. Now discipline is less about obedience and compliance and more about doing what’s right for the right reasons.
Stop Using Incentives
When we bribe students to behave a certain way or do work, we send the message that what we’re incentivizing must not be worthy on its own. Incentives decrease intrinsic motivation and decrease creativity. For a variety of resources on this topic, check out this Pinterest board that I’ve put together. Instead of using incentives, emphasize to students the intrinsic benefits of work or behavior. For example, “We’re going to learn a new strategy for multiplying fractions—a strategy that will deepen our math thinking.”
We all want students to feel ownership of their work, but we often use language that indicates that we own the work and that students are doing the work for us. Instead, let’s work at using the second person more than the first when speaking about work. We can also frame explanations of tasks through student perspectives instead of our own.
Give Students More Choice
When we allow students some choice and flexibility about what they learn and/or how they learn it, we help students tap into their intrinsic drive. Importantly, we need to move from giving students choice to teaching them how to choose well. Also, consider that choice doesn’t need to be just about big projects and culminating events. Choice can (and should!) be used as a part of daily learning in small and simple ways. The choice between three articles to read or two activities to practice a skill can be enough to boost intrinsic motivation and help students self-differentiate their work.
Teach Skills of Self-Management
Assigning work and punishing students when they don’t complete it (or do a crummy job or turn it in late) is not teaching responsibility. It’s setting some students up for failure. Instead, we need to help students learn strategies and skills of self-management. How do you screen out distractions to stay focused? How do you break down a large project into bite-sized tasks? How do you force yourself to keep working when what you really want to do is play a game on your phone? How do you handle frustration in group-work? These (and many others) are social and emotional skills that can be practiced and learned. That means we need to teach them as a part of daily academic learning!
Of course, these are just a few ways we can help create learning environments that will enable students to develop the mindsets and skills they need to be successful in school and beyond. What are some other ideas you have? Use the comments section of this blog to share ideas with other educators!