Do I believe in intrinsic motivation? Of course! Do I want all of my children (students and birthed children) to be intrinsically motivated all of the time to– do the right thing, work hard, be kind, learn a lot, etc? Of course! And… do I sometimes resort to extrinsic motivators? ABSOLUTELY! I try to think about extrinsic motivators as either temporary crutches while we develop an ability to see the intrinsic value (ie-working effectively with others) OR as a way to motivate when there is something I would like my children or students to do, but there isn’t really any real reason for THEM to want to do this (ie-lining up quietly at the end of the lunch period to move from the cafeteria to the classroom). I’m not sure I’ve always made the right decisions at the right times. In fact, I’m quite sure that I’ve made many missteps, and maybe I’ve ruined some children’s hope of arriving at intrinsic motivation. I hope we can all recover from these.
Last week I was planning for a lesson I was going to teach in 3rd grade where children were going to be making fraction kits. (Side note– this is a great lesson that I learned from Marilyn Burns’ book, About Teaching Mathematics, and I was a bit shocked when I looked at the copyright date and saw 1992– still a great lesson today). As I was standing in the copy room slicing strips of construction paper, I had a lot of time to think through the various steps of the lesson. And I kept getting hung up on how Kara and Devon were going to be at each other’s throats about the materials. There would be a box of markers on each table, but I could still imagine Kara and Devon arguing about who would get which color. I pictured Jonathan becoming frustrated when others at his table started getting ahead of him. I decided that I needed to do something to help the students really support one another at their table groups. I knew that I couldn’t possibly be in every corner of the room at all points in time, and there was at least one person at every table that was going to need some help. Since this isn’t my full-time classroom (I teach here one math period a week, the rest of the time I’m just the principal in the building), I knew I needed something quick that would essentially force the students to support one another. Sounded to me like the perfect opportunity for an extrinsic motivator. Enter– Table Stars!
Before launching the lesson, I explained that an important way to be successful in this lesson today was going to be by being really supportive and encouraging to their table-mates. I gave them some possible scripts of what to say that might be supportive and collaborative. Finally, I told them that I would be listening in on their table conversations and giving stars to tables that sounded like they were being supportive and collaborative. I never told them the stars were going to lead to anything, and no one asked. But they were clearly eager to earn these stars.
As they were working, I listened in and when I heard Sophia tell Christian he was doing a good job, I came over to the table and pointed out what a supportive thing to say that was, and I added a star to their table. I heard Kara ask someone at her table to double check her work before she folded. I acknowledged her for using her team to support her work, and I added a star. I suppose in some way it was also a prompt to me to emphasize my reinforcing language (see Responsive Classroom book, The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton).
At most tables, this was working beautifully, and students were really supporting one another. True, this may not have been intrinsically motivated, but I think that all of the students felt a sense of pride in their ability to work collaboratively and support their teammates. However, something was amiss at the table with Jonathan. Justin and Gavin were working as a pair. They were really supporting each other. But they hadn’t said a word of encouragement to Jonathan… and Jonathan was sulking. He really wasn’t getting much done. And every time another table got a star, Justin and Gavin would look up and say, “WHAAA?!?!?!” They were upset that they were not getting stars. I tried to suggest in subtle ways that their encouragement needed to extend beyond the two-some, since there were five people at their table. I walked away, and a few minutes later heard a similar reaction when another table got another star. I returned to say more explicitly, “You guys are only supporting each other. I am watching Jonathan over there by himself, and I don’t see you encouraging him at all.”
Justin, a generally easy going kid who always plays by the rules and acts with kindness, virtually exploded, “He has been being so mean to me! I am not going to help him!” I hadn’t seen any unkindness, and expressed my confusion. Justin admitted that Jonathan wasn’t currently being mean. So I simply re-stated that the stars were about encouraging all– everyone at your table– and walked away.
At the end of the workshop, as students were returning to the rug to share about what they had learned, and how their group work had gone, Justin approached me during the transition. With the earnestness that I have become accustomed to seeing in his eyes, he said, “I realized that I shouldn’t have gotten mad so quickly. Once I started being nice to Jonathan and encouraging him, we really did work well together. It really worked!”
I chuckled and thought to myself, “Fake it til you make it.”
As we were wrapping up the reflection on the lesson, I returned to the stars on the board. I explained that the stars did not have any meaning beyond this lesson. No one was a winner or a loser based on these stars. But I also shared Justin’s observation, and invited others to share their similar observations about supporting one another. I explained that while some of their comments may have initially felt fake or forced, they ultimately led to better teamwork. And I said out loud, “Sometimes you just have to fake it till you make it!”
I have very mixed feelings about motivation– intrinsic versus extrinsic. I believe that as educators and as parents, we should do what works for children… we should be responsive to their needs, and we should provide an environment in which all can be successful. But sometimes our actions may lead to short-term success, but longer term problems. I try to be very thoughtful about ways I reinforce and redirect student behavior, but I’m sure I, too often, resort to rewards and bribes because they work in the short term. Just being honest here! But when I think about “Fake it ‘til you make it,” I think the message is about using a short term motivator that ultimately gets removed when the person you are trying to motivate sees the intrinsic value and you are able to remove the motivator. That’s my hope anyway…