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Motivation and Education

The following is from an article featured in the education section of USA Today on January 28, 2008:

“Teachers have long said that success is its own reward. But these days, some students are finding that good grades can bring them cash and luxury gifts. In at least a dozen states this school year, students who bring home top marks can expect more than just gratitude. Examples:

  • Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso last week promised to spend more than $935,000 to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams.
  • In New York City, about 9,000 fourth- and seventh-graders in 60 schools are eligible to win as much as $500 for improving their scores on the city’s English and math tests, given throughout the school year.
  • In suburban Atlanta, a pair of schools last week kicked off a program that will pay 8th- and 11th-grade students $8 an hour for a 15-week ‘Learn & Earn’ after-school study program (the federal minimum wage is currently $5.85).”

This article, which understandably makes many parents and educators bristle, raises a real and important question: How do we motivate our children to learn? In my lecture “Motivation in Education,” I addressed the “cash for grades” and other desperately misguided attempts at motivation. I boiled the motivation theorists down to three essential categories, which I will explain over the next few weeks.

The first category includes those who attempt to create “motivated” students by allowing them to engage in activities of their choice, activities that are inherently enjoyable given their juvenile desires.

The Waldorf Schools, for example, say that until the age of seven, children should be taught no academic skills, including reading or writing. Instead, they are encouraged to participate in activities believed to be natural to their stage of development, such as finger-knitting, storytelling, and movement games. The FAQ section of a Waldorf charter school says that at Waldorf Schools “abstraction and conceptual teaching are kept to a minimum, especially with younger children. In this way children become more personally engaged in whatever they are learning.” (emphasis added)

An Atlantic Monthly article praising the virtues of the Waldorf method describes the activities of a dozen fourth graders in the original Waldorf school. “The class was finishing a year-long project: making mallets for wood carving out of stubborn pieces of hardwood, which they were patiently filing and sanding by hand. One boy, who had finished his mallet, was making a knife out of teak, and regularly paused to feel its smoothness on his cheek.” The author also respectfully describes the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old Waldorf student in a depressed California town, saying, “[He] sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he’d been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize.”

These children are-in a sense-“motivated,” but motivated to do what?

To say that a person is motivated is to say that he has some drive or desire that incites action. For the purposes of a rational discussion of education, that drive or desire must incite the ambition to learn. It must incite the drive to acquire knowledge-and not just any knowledge, but that knowledge necessary for life as an adult human being.

Motivation cannot be confused with any feeling of eagerness, enthusiasm, or joy independent of the focus of those feelings of the purpose of the action they incite. The manager of a company would not describe his employees as motivated if they were eager and excited to come to work every day so that they could play basketball in the company gym or spread gossip in the break room. A motivated employee is one who is inspired to action consistent with the central goal of his job.

Similarly, it is not relevant to a meaningful discussion of motivation in education to discuss the suggestion that the problem of motivation be solved by offering children a program of all-day recess. This is not a solution to the problem; it is an evasion of the problem.


The intrinsicists’ answer to the question of motivation

The “all day recess” approach of Waldorf-type schools to the issue of motivation — which have children engaging in wood carving, finger-knitting, and movement games rather than learning to read or write because they find the former activities more “personally engaging” — is akin to a mother motivating her picky eater by letting him eat cookies.

This approach is irrelevant to a meaningful discussion of motivation. These educators are not solving the problem of motivation; they are evading it by pandering to the spontaneous impulses of the child. The real issue of motivation is: how do we inspire children with the ambition to master real academic content, to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for mature life? How do we help them to develop a deep and lasting interest the subjects they must study if they are to become informed, intelligent, efficacious adults? How do we encourage in them a love of math and history and literature and English and science?

To this question, today’s educators offer two basic answers. The first is the one put forth, implicitly or explicitly, by advocates of classical or traditional education. And their answer as to how you motivate children to master the academic curriculum is, in essence: you can’t. The classical educators regard learning as a noble, lofty pursuit that appeals to man’s higher nature. It does not appeal to his desires and interests, which are this-worldly and base, but to his intellect, which is above selfish and material concerns. Because the idea of motivation is that the child must be given a personal reason for putting forth the effort to learn, because it suggests that there must be something in it for him, the very concept of motivation would be regarded by such educators as a selfish concept, and as such, at odds with the purpose of education.

The spirit of the traditional, classical movement in education is one of duty. The student is bound by obligation, to his community, his country or God, to develop his character and intellect through the study of mankind’s accumulated wisdom. His goal in becoming educated is not a personal, selfish one; on the contrary, the very purpose of education is to help him rise above his childish selfish impulses. In Norms and Nobility, by David Hicks, a popular treatise on classical education, Hicks condemns modern public schooling, saying, “In its utilitarian haste, the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to the life of pleasure; but by encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interest.” By contrast, classical education, he says, aims to “satisfy man’s deepest longings to belong, to transcend his disconcerting self-centeredness, to serve the whole, and to know his purposes and meaning within the context of the whole.” It is this spirit of duty that yields as the image of traditional, classical education the military taskmaster or the nun with a ruler.

This view of education falls in the intrinsicist tradition. Education, like all other values, is not a value to an individual for a certain purpose, but is intrinsically good-good in itself. Values are severed from reason and from reality, so the child can be given no explanation as to why he should develop his intellect, no this-worldly purpose for doing so. Education is simply a moral obligation detached from his life and his interests.

The subjectivists’ answer to the question of motivation

Most educators of the classical or traditional education tradition appeal to duty, and not to the interests of the child, as the source of motivation. The child is to rise above his own interests, and fulfill his moral obligation to learn.

There is another school of thought that advocates appealing to the child’s interests-his fleeting, short-range, childish interests. To the extent that there remains any real academic content in today’s schools, I would say this is the primary form of motivation offered. This is the view, in essence, that to make the drudgery and labor of learning palatable to a child, you must offer him immediate rewards for enduring the process. These rewards must tap into his current interests, his childish values, so that he has a clear and present reason for doing the tasks he is assigned.

A wildly popular example of this approach is the “Book It!” program established by Pizza Hut in 1985 and promoted in teachers’ colleges to this day. This program, which has been used in 900,000 classrooms by 22 million students, offers children certificates for a personal pan pizza in exchange for meeting a monthly reading goal. In 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported a growing number of such incentive programs in an article titled “For Some Students, the Value of Learning is Measured in Pizzas and Parking Passes.” The article quotes a New Mexico English teacher, who says, “It’s a terrific idea. Those students who wouldn’t ordinarily work for academic achievement are now getting something tangible to work for.” It describes the array of reward programs, which offer students everything from a day off, to free food, to orthodontic discounts, to cash.

A 2005 Associated Press article reported a shocking example of this approach, of tapping into teenage values to motivate learning. According to the article, school officials in Baltimore spent $2 million developing a reading program called “Studio Course,” which “uses teen magazines, places grammar on the back burner and lets students write about whatever they want.” The curriculum includes a teen magazine that defines a noun as “stuff” and a verb as “what stuff does,” as well as Cosmo Girl, which at the time when the article was written featured such articles as “Five Hot New Kisses” and “Flirt Better.”

This approach, of indulging a child’s immediate desires in order to get him to perform academically, falls in the subjectivist tradition. The message sent to children about why they should succeed in school is that it is entirely subjective-that it will get you what you happen to want right now, whatever that may be, whether pizza, video games, money, or lessons on kissing.

So, in education today, there are: first, the Waldorf types who evade the problem of motivation because they evade the responsibility of education; second, the Catholic school types who proclaim education a moral duty; and third, the public school types who think gold stars and pizza provide the only compelling reasons to learn.

The principles that define a proper approach to motivation

What are the principles that define a proper approach to motivation?

The first of these principles is that before a teacher can motivate the material of his subject, he must first carefully and explicitly identify the value of his subject. He must know, clearly and consciously, why a study of his subject is crucial to the child’s life. This task is neglected for a variety of reasons. As I indicated in a past newsletter, the intrinsicist teacher does not regard his subject as having any value to the child’s life; it is a duty imposed upon him, and the answer to why he should learn it begins, “Thou shalt…” The subjectivist teacher can offer no principled, absolute statement of a subject’s value; value is relative, and depends on a variety of subjectively-defined, concrete goals, goals that change rapidly with the educational fashion. Even those with a more objective view of their subject’s value rarely identify that value in terms so explicit that they can use it as an absolute standard guiding the approach of the course and can communicate that value explicitly to the students.

The VanDamme Academy brochure and website state concisely the essential value of each of the core subjects. On more than one occasion, a parent coming into the school has commented to me that until reading our website, he had never considered why each of these subjects is crucial. But the why-a statement of the indispensable value of this material to a person’s life-is a prerequisite of a proper curriculum and of proper motivation; it should dictate the whole content and method of the course, and as I will explain, it must serve as the basic means of motivating the students.

The next important principle is that the purpose of the course must set the standard for the selection of its content. In literature, the purpose of teaching the child to experience literature as an art form sets the standard for the selection of works; the course must include those novels, plays, and stories that can achieve this purpose. If the purpose of reading is loosely defined in the teacher’s mind as a way to expand the students’ vocabulary, develop their ability to identify the main point of a given paragraph, and learn factual information in a fictional setting, then any textbook reader will do. If the purpose is a political agenda, of exposing students to other cultures, teaching them “tolerance,” and shattering the belief that great literature is the province of dead white males, then any modern, PC novel, no matter the quality of its writing or depth of its theme (or even whether it has a theme) will do. A proper literature curriculum must be made up of literary classics for children and adults, classics that have endured because of the timelessness of their themes and the eloquence of their presentation. Exposed to great art from an early age, students become sophisticated and impassioned readers.

The essential principle to proper motivation

In order for a teacher to properly motivate his students, he must really know the purpose of teaching his subject, and that purpose must set the standard for selection of the subject’s content. Let me now add that the content selected must also be hierarchically appropriate if the purpose is to be achievable.

In a literature course, for example, the works selected for a given group of students must contain characters and themes to which they can relate. They must contain abstract material that the students are capable of grasping and can connect to their own lives. I once gave a workshop on hierarchy in education to the Maryland Homeschoolers’ Association. In the discussion, I threw out, as a contrived example of the violation of hierarchy, the absurdity of reading Tom Sawyer to your toddler in the name of getting a jump on the classics. A parent approached me after the talk, thanked me for it, and confessed, his head low, that he had been reading none other than Tom Sawyer to his 2 and 5-year-olds, with what he had regarded as inexplicably disastrous results. It is not inexplicable-the works introduced to a child must not just be meaningful, they must be meaningful to him.

The value of the subject must also set the standard for the method of the course. Every exercise must be purposeful; it must be carefully selected to further the ultimate goal of the course. The method by which we achieve the purpose in literature is to have daily discussions of the reading, and daily writing assignments, that are integrated around the central value of the work-discussions that help the students to gain an understanding of the plot, of the characterization, and of the theme, so that they gain, over time, a deep appreciation for the story and for its meaning.

Key to this method must also be active integration of the material to the rest of the child’s knowledge, including his knowledge of other subjects and the experiences of his life. He must not view the knowledge he gains as isolated, free-floating items of information, but as part of a whole, connected body of knowledge that he is working to master because of the guidance it will offer him in the pursuit of a fulfilled, happy life. Each subject has profound value-real, practical, selfish value-and the teacher must make a purpose of conveying this fact through connections to real life.

The final and most important principle of motivation is that the teacher must identify, explicitly and abstractly, the value of the subject to the students’ livesMotivation is fundamentally cognitive; it is knowledge itself-knowledge of the value of the material he is learning.. He must explain, as an important and recurring theme through every course, why the student is learning this, and what is the benefit to him.

Andrew Lewis once gave a presentation to the VanDamme Academy parents about his method of teaching history. He said that the subject of history, as taught by most history teachers, answers five questions: Who?, What?, When?, Where? , and How? He then explained that a proper history course absolutely must answer two more questions: Why? , and the one most relevant to my purpose here, So what? This question must be answered not just in history, but in every subject.

The basic principles of motivation are really quite simple: the teacher must identify the value of his course, design the curriculum accordingly, and name the value explicitly. If he does this properly, he can dispose of the pizzas, gold stars, and rulers, and enjoy the radiantly eager response of children who really grasp what they are learning and why.

  • Alexander Lee

    Great article! I’m afraid to say that the novels I had to read in high school belonged to the politically-correct, multicutural category — The Kite Runner, for example, which was a horrible book with no real message other than that life is hell. What a joy it was to recently read The Hunchback of Notre Dame! Its presence in VanDamme Academy’s curriculum contributed to my original interest in reading it.