External motivation can encourage short-term accomplishments, but it can only take you so far. Teachers need to prepare their students for the adult world, where concrete rewards are few and far between.
We want kids to be excited about coming to school, interested in acquiring new skills, and eager to explore new topics. We want them to feel good about themselves when they succeed, not because they will win an award, but simply because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. In short, we need to instill intrinsic motivation in students. But how?
The Limits of External Motivation
Motivating kids to learn for learning's sake isn't easy, which is why teachers often rely on external motivators. These can take many forms, like contests, prizes, or parties. Even grades are a form of external motivation; a student who has earned an A on an assignment is typically more thrilled by the grade itself than the successful learning it represents. External motivators aren't necessarily bad; some of them may, in fact, encourage kids effectively. But it's also important to encourage intrinsic motivation in students.
Further reading: 5 Motivational Videos for Students
I once worked with a physical education teacher who solicited prizes from local businesses for the school's annual field days. He put a lot of time and effort into accumulating prizes, including restaurant coupons, sports equipment, tech accessories, and movie tickets. I once asked him if he really needed all these rewards. "They expect prizes," he said. "I don't think they would participate without them. I'd have to stop doing field days."
This teacher thought he was going the extra mile for his students, but he was actually selling them short. Most kids just wanted to be outside competing and enjoying the sunshine. The experience itself was reward enough—they didn't need any free stuff on top of that.
In my experience, teachers who connect with kids and give them lots of opportunities to participate in their own learning are generally successful at encouraging intrinsic motivation. When students know that their teacher really wants to hear their ideas and opinions about what they're studying, they feel like they're part of the learning process. If students know that today's assignment will definitely be part of tomorrow's discussion, they want to be prepared.
Limiting "teacher talk" and allowing more time to be spent on cooperative learning or group projects also helps. Encouraging kids to work together sends a message that the teacher trusts they can learn and find solutions to problems with minimal adult intervention.
Teachers who are successful in helping kids become self-motivated use a variety of ways to determine academic progress. A rubric, for example, is a powerful tool to help kids understand what quality work looks like and how their own efforts measure up. Likewise, teachers who want kids to participate in their own learning tell them what's going to be on the final test at the beginning of the unit of study. This helps students understand the expectations from the get-go.
"Inviting students to have a voice in classroom decisions—where they sit, what day a test takes place, in what order units are studied, or even where a plant should be placed in the classroom—can help them develop that greater sense of control," says teacher Larry Ferlazzo. Kids develop intrinsic motivation to succeed when they're invested in their own learning.
The Power of Choice
Encouraging intrinsic motivation in students is a challenge, but it's possible. According to David Palank, a principal in Washington, D.C., kids have to convince themselves that they really want to do a particular activity. For example, Palank says that before class begins, you can ask students to select one of two lines to stand in: "Ready to Work" or "Going to Misbehave." Palank says that few children want to select the second line, but committing to the first means they have to persuade themselves that they are, in fact, ready to work.
A similar technique is to ask students, "On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to do your homework tonight?" Students typically won't respond with low numbers and again have to persuade themselves that they will do the homework.
Palank also suggests asking students to set a goal at the beginning of class and to read it out loud so that everyone knows what they intend to do. Goals are reviewed at the end of class to see whether students accomplished them. Asking students what they're going to do instead of telling them what to do is a way to instill in them self-direction and, eventually, intrinsic motivation. The key, Palank says, is that students have the ability to choose for themselves.
Why Intrinsic Motivation Matters
Students who find motivation within themselves are likely to be lifetime learners. Reading for enjoyment, for example, will serve students well throughout their academic careers and beyond. Students who don't find the excitement of chemistry class to be acing the test, but rather learning how the scientific process works, are setting themselves up for success later on.
Further reading: Stretch Goals
As for teachers, most know that while it's great to be recognized with an award, helping kids succeed despite the odds, and having former students return years later to say thanks, is what really matters. Most teachers don't work hard just for the promise of an external reward, so why shouldn't they expect the same of their students?