Are you struggling to motivate your horizontal students too?

So we have found the secret to learning…thinking hard.

Part one of this series – you can find it here – explored what we mean by thinking hard and it explored just some of the many reasons why we avoid it. It is, of course, not a simple proposition to get our students to think hard consistently. One key factor – and the subject of this second part in the series – is the crucial role of motivation in getting our students to override their natural instinct to loaf and to instead think hard.

Every single thing we do in the classroom affects the motivation of our students. Not only that, it does so it subtly different ways for every individual. This degree of complexity is tantamount to us trying pin tails on a herd of roaming gazelles, but try we must. Our students’ capacity to persist through hard challenges, even managing to conquer boredom, is a crucial factor that determines their ability to do some hard thinking.

How well children can control their youthful, and the all too human impulse to procrastinate and surrender to distraction has long been the topic of study for psychologists, with teachers and parents proving very interested parties. In his famous ‘marshmallow test’, back in 1973, Walter Mischel, created a memorable measure for the capacity of children to exercise their self-control: will they eat the marshmallow? Given a short amount of time, some children were able to postpone instant gratification with the promise of a second marshmallow, but many were not. Our interest in this capacity to control our impulses, clearly essential for thinking hard, has been spun into many different guises, such as the teaching of character (consider the argument for and against), possessing GRIT (again, there are lots of positive perspectives on teaching GRIT and some withering critiques), or deploying metacognitive skills. The latter, which describes our capacity to think about how well we are controlling ourselves and sticking to the difficult task of thinking hard, probably offers us the most fruitful path towards our desired endgame (more of this in part three).

We see the marshmallow being eaten by our students daily, like when they subtly avoid the work by surreptitiously chatting to their friends, or when they ditch their homework for an evening of X-box anarchy. Making our students aware of the marshmallow problem is a start. After raising awareness of their struggles with self-regulation, we can then aim to explicitly teach them how to top up their reserves of self-control (it can prove as easy as having a proper lunch), giving them strategies to work more effectively when thinking hard about our subject.

In an interesting development on the marshmallow metaphor, Celeste Kidd, an American researcher, decided to replicate Mischel’s marshmallow test, but with a crucial addition: she engineered the trial to see the degree of trust in the person impacted upon the motivation to fend off instant gratification – see here. Unsurprisingly, the child who trusted the caregiver could exercise more self-control. They could think a little clearer about fending off their desire for some quick-fire sugary goodness.

What is the obvious message for teachers? We need our students to trust us if they are to be motivated to think hard. This trust can be gained by knowing them and their interests, by our being a passionate expert who they know know their stuff and is actually enthusiastic about learning, as well striving to be consistent and fair. It is often a long, slow, but ultimately rewarding process.

In short, if we want to motivate students to think hard we need to develop a strong relationship with them. Fostering all the ‘soft’ stuff of relationships and our students’ self-worth affects their capacity to think hard in infinitely complex ways.

Controlling the behaviour of teenagers can be like herding feral cats, but by better understanding the roots of motivation, we can nudge them in our desired general direction. Defining the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a good start.

First, extrinsic motivation is the ugly step-sister of the two, as it describes motivation prompted by external rewards or sanctions (practically, these are very common in school). A student reluctantly doing their homework is not desirable, but it is better than not doing it at all. Intrinsic motivation is when a student learns because they find a task personally rewarding and they enjoy the challenge. This is the nirvana every teacher seeks!

Of course, we want more of the latter, but schools have to develop systems to utilise the former. Both are important, but we want more intrinsic motivation driving our students.

What is the Problem with Rewards? The name Pavlov should ring a bell because our knowledge of behaviourism stretches back well over a century. Many of our school systems are as old as the skeletons of Pavlov’s famous dogs. Our schools are built upon sanction/reward systems – many of which that have stood the test of time. The problem is that these extrinsic motivators can only adapt the behavior of our students so far. Rewards, though seemingly integral to our work, are often deeplyflawed and often don’t result in the positive outcomes we expect.

Carol Dweck, the growth mindset queen bee, has been a vocal critic of empty and/or ‘lavish praise’ for quite obvious reasons. The most common reward we offer is praise. To give praise is human, but when we solely praise the intelligence of our students we risk making them dependent on this feel-good drug, actually seeing them more likely to avoid taking on the challenge of thinking hard, in case they expose a seeming lack of intelligence by failing or having to struggle:

“…when we praise children for their intelligence, we are telling them that this is the name of the game: Look smart ; don’t risk making mistakes . On the other hand, when we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might—or might not—look.”

Carol Dweck, ‘Caution: Praise Can Be Dangerous’.

The relationship between motivation, effort and thinking hard is of course important. Cognitive scientist, Dan Willingham, exposes the tricky business of rewarding students. In his article, on ‘Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?’ he recommends that rewards, if used, should be “desirable, certain and prompt”. Willingham nails it with the perceptive analogy of rewards being like taking out a loan:

“I liken rewards to taking out a loan. You get an immediate benefit, but you know that you will eventually have to pay up, with interest. As with loans, I suggest three guidelines to the use of rewards: 1) try to find an alternative 2) use them for a specific reason, not a general strategy 3) plan for the ending.”

Willingham is critical of rewards as a motivational strategy, but pragmatic, which is an opinion that I share. Any absolute judgement, like rewards are universally bad, is wrongheaded and wrong, but being conscious of the potential damage to motivation that our well-intended rewards can create is worthy of our attention.

Models of motivation

There are lots of theories and models all attempting to define motivation that you can freely explore. One such effort is John Keller’s ARCS model of motivation:

  • Attention: grabbing our attention with strategies like using humour, examples and active participation;
  • Relevance: finding what is familiar and likable to us, like providing recognisable models and suggesting future usefulness;
  • Confidence: helping us all develop their confidence so that when we make small, successful steps that we are motivated to continue our efforts;
  • Satisfaction: a simple notion really – we need to feel satisfied by our work, by being challenged as much as being successful.

Another popular model is labelled self-determination theory. It has key its tenets based upon autonomy, competence and relatedness. In all of these rather abstract frameworks, we recognise the many human emotions that attend our actions. Fundamentally, a student feeling confident and competent can prove more likely to take on a challenge, to go on and think hard, even in the face of struggle and failure.

You will struggle to find teachers who were not in turn inspired and motivated by their teachers. We can all likely remember a teacher who could make us feel ten foot tall and capable of anything – even trigonometry. This Pygmalion effect can be theorized and analysed with scientific terms like self-concept, agency, self-efficacy and more, but the words of Eliza Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘Pygmalion’, captures the essence of the motivation every teacher is seeking to elicit from their students:

“I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the emotional relationships we form with our students affect motivation so much, given we are thinking and feeling beings, and that learning is a complex mashup of thinking and feeling. There are no easy formulas or quick fixes here, but unpicking the science and psychology of motivation can no doubt help.

Having the expectation of lots of hard thinking, modelling it well, making it feel valuable and of intrinsic worth, is no quick and easy endeavour, but it may just better motivate and inspire our students to do some hard thinking.

Now, are you feeling motivated?

The ‘Thinking Hard’ blog series:

Part 1: ‘Thinking Hard…and Why We Avoid It’