Motivation and Persistence
Few in the education field are unfamiliar with the terms ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation coined by Ryan and Deci in their self-determination theory (2000). Intrinsic motivation comes from within and describes motivation that sees the task as valuable in and of itself. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that stems from an external reward or punishment. Ryan and Deci found that intrinsic motivation was supported by learning environments where students experienced relatedness, autonomy, and competence.
Getting it Wrong
Unfortunately, the way we often approach instilling grit and self-motivation is at odds with Ryan and Deci’s findings.
Frequently, grit and self-motivation growth are used to justify having students work at tasks that they have little to no interest in, creating a situation in which the student feels that the classroom activity is ‘not for them’. Their sense of belonging, or relatedness, in the class decreases, thus decreasing their intrinsic motivation to continue. They may be forced to complete activities and assignments against their wishes, which decreases their sense of autonomy. Finally, forcing students to ‘bang their heads against the wall’ completing busy work will lower their own sense of competency if steps are not taken to make the learning more authentic and they continue to meet with failure due to an inability to engage in learning.
Clearly, fostering grit and intrinsic motivation are not at all a justification for enforced participation in low-engagement activities in the classroom. Unfortunately, many teachers persist in doing just this; consciously or subconsciously using ‘character building’ as an excuse for providing unengaging, boring lessons.
Getting it Right
In order to truly create intrinsic motivation and grit in students, our lessons must look much different than the one described above. Students should be provided with engaging and authentic learning opportunities in order to foster buy-in and a desire to be a part of the classroom community. Furthermore, we as teachers need to ensure that student voice and autonomy is supported in our classrooms to empower students to take control of and direct their own learning. Finally, students should be provided with challenging material that they can succeed at with effort and support. This will help students to ‘do’ grit and actually persevere to solve interesting and engaging problems.
While the need for grit and intrinsic, self-motivated learning is something we all can agree on, it is imperative that we as teachers provide students with the engaging classroom learning communities and lessons that they need to develop these traits in an authentic way. Grinding out menial, boring tasks doesn’t build grit and character; it builds resentment and distrust between students and their teachers. If we want our students to persevere at solving problems, we as educators must provide them with interesting problems worth solving.
Richardson, W. (2016, July 21). Why Do We Need to Teach Kids “Self-Motivation”? [web log post]. Retrieved from: http://willrichardson.com/need-teach-kids-self-motivation/
Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68-78.
Tough, P. (2016). Helping Children Succeed: What works and why. [pdf edition no. 1] Available from: http://paultough.com/helping/
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.