Do we want compliant behaviour or engaged behaviour from our students?

“Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one's capacities, to explore, and to learn.” (Ryan & Deci 2000)

Intrinsic motivation is the internal desire to seek out new things and new challenges, whereas extrinsic motivation comes from influences outside of the individual (the carrot and stick approach, or rewards and punishments). When students perceive a teacher to be intrinsically motivated to teach the class, the students themselves are more interested and involved (Radel et al 2010). Students who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage in the task willingly and to work to improve their skills, which will increase their capabilities (Wigfield et al 2004).

Students don't have a lot of autonomy in school—but neither do their teachers. The challenge for us as educators is that at some level, compliance is a lot easier than engagement in a classroom environment. Daniel Pink (author of Drive, 2009) suggests that there is a big difference between compliant behaviour and engaged behaviour. Students have one of two reactions- when compliance is enforced, they either comply or they defy. We don't want defiant students, but we also don't want compliant students. We want students who are engaged. If you truly want to engage students, you have to pull back on control and create the conditions in which they can tap into their own inner motivations.

The three needs for intrinsic motivation

  1. Mastery – a belief that we can control outcomes through our actions, and experience competence or mastery. We want to become a master at something.

  2. Purpose – a sense of connection, relatedness, belonging, care, closeness and interaction with others. It’s all about purpose and doing something meaningful beyond ourselves.

  3. Autonomy – a level of independence, self-direction and being able to make choices and act in alignment with our own values (Ryan & Deci 2000; Pink 2009).

Fulfilment of these needs tends to lead us to being intrinsically motivated.

We can foster mastery by exploring, understanding and cultivating strengths, and building on our existing skill sets. Mastery is where the work is adequately challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult. “Goldilocks” tasks are not too hard and not too easy, just right. Also mastery feels good and children must be able to demonstrate mastery of knowledge and essential skills in different ways at different paces to feel a sense of achievement. When we are having fun we are very engaged. Rigor and playfulness pair much more smoothly than we think. We can try bringing some fun to learning.

We can foster purpose by understanding that students are naturally curious. If we link learning to their world and make it relevant, they get really excited about the work, want to do it and want to do it well. We need to be prepared to answer the question: why do we have to do this? Also helping them find the bigger purpose in what they are doing. Purpose can be found by highlighting different areas of need and then findings ways that students can help. Project work can tick all three intrinsic motivational areas.

We can foster autonomy byallowing choice of activity; encouraging student voice and providing rationale for learning activities (Radel et al 2010). Put students in the driver’s seat for learning especially first up in the morning. This sets the stage for them to become active participants in their own learning and sparks their internal motivation.

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