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Motivation in Education

“Can we help students to want to learn?” This is a question that I have wrestled with for the better part of the last 6 years. After this weeks’ assignments, I think I have finally begun to understand some of the answers to this question.

I believe we can indeed help students to want to learn, but it will definitely not be by offering them extrinsic motivators, as Dan Pink would tell us. We can no longer “dangle the carrot” of a good grade as a motivator to do quality work. Sure, there will be students that will do it, but are they really doing the work because they love the topic, or are they merely working towards that grade?

I have struggled with this question for the last few years, especially in my position as an elementary and high school band director. For years, I have been trying to figure out how to get my students to practice their instruments. At the elementary level, I have tried every type of motivational tool that I could think of. I now realize that all of those tools were exclusively extrinsic motivators. I have tried sticker charts, “band bucks”, prizes, and even candy. At the middle and high school levels, I have tried things like playing tests. All of these techniques were an effort to get my students to practice more. It was not surprising to find that every one of those techniques failed miserably. Then I decided to make a major change in my elementary program. We changed our schedule around so that band students could now meet twice a week, instead of once. And, they get to meet as a whole band during one of those sessions, instead of only a small group. This has led to a much higher level of enthusiasm within the students, and many more of them are practicing than ever before. Why is this the case? It is because they are intrinsically motivated. They really enjoy coming to band because they get to play in a large group. They really enjoy the music, because it is appropriately challenging and fun to play. The students are enjoying their musical experience, and therefore are more motivated to learn their music and practice.

I would suggest that in other subject areas, we find a way to possibly de-emphasize the reward of the “good grade.” I do not claim to be an expert in other areas of education, but I believe that in order for our students to be intrinsically motivated, they need to believe in what they are working towards. And, perhaps they just need to enjoy it more. How can we get our students to enjoy what they are learning? Maybe it is as simple as trying to get them to enjoy being in our classes. As Csikszentmihalyi suggests in our reading, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” (p. 215) Our students need to be appropriately challenged in our classes. In my elementary band class, I am now able to give my students music that is just challenging enough for them to be interested. But yet, it is not so challenging that it is beyond their ability level. Another important factor in motivation can also be our ability as teachers to provide goals that are clear, and provide immediate feedback. These factors are essential to what Csikszentmihalyi calls achieving “flow.” (p. 217) Clear goals and immediate feedback allow us to focus on the task at hand and to block out unnecessary distractions.

As far as having all students meet the same high standards, I still do not think it is possible for this to happen. I think the more appropriate question would be to ask if all students can reach their potential. I still do not believe that it is realistic to hold every single student to the same academic achievement score. If each person’s brain is indeed wired differently, then how is it even possible that every student will be able to reach the same academic score? I believe it will take a monumental shift in the way that education in our country is structured before we see any change in the world of high stakes testing.

Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. Riverhead Books: New York.

TED (2009). Talks: Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation. Retrieved February 16, 2010 from

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2005). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The Norton Psychological Reader.

TED (2004). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow. Retrieved February 16, 2010 from