One of the big things we discovered during the COVID closures of spring 2020 is that many of our students are presently motivated by carrots and sticks: credit or no credit, GPA boosts or GPA reductions, prizes or penalties, incentives or consequences. Most educators did not find this surprising.
This “play the game” mentality is not something to blame on the children. Instead, it is a fruit of our systems and a fruit of the kinds of things we say to students about learning, school, and what it's all for. Systems-level changes are well beyond my pay grade at present, but I'm 100% intrigued by that second cause: how the way I communicate about learning, school, and purpose influences the degree to which my students settle for the carrots and sticks belief system. Let's focus there — that's squarely within our sandbox.
Again and again, we come back to a central principle here on the blog: when the adults in a student's life are fuzzy on the purpose of an education — on Everest, as we say — then all types of problems result. One of these problems is that, eventually, a student will intuit that there is no clear purpose and that education is therefore just a cruel, tired thing to get through.
Here's what this intuition sounds like:
- Will this count for a grade?
- If I only do one remote learning assignment per week, I get to keep my grade from March, right?
- Will we need to know this for the test?
- Will colleges care about my grades for X semester?
- Does my GPA even matter if I enlist?
The more I observe the effects of this “play the game” mentality, the more I see that it is deeply dehumanizing. I mean this literally. Carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not people. (No offense to donkeys.) Humans are wrought for meaning and significance; if you look, you'll see this written large in the faces, writings, and words of so many of your students. Once you get used to seeing it, it starts to hurt — many readers know this. For too many students, the way they experience school is disconnected from their developing drive for meaning and significance. Sarah Malin, a former colleague of Bill Damon at the Stanford Center on Adolescence and author of Teaching for Purpose, found in interviewing hundreds of adolescent students that only a quarter of high schoolers (and fewer in younger grades) had identified and were pursuing a purpose for their lives.
My point is not that we ought to sideline a broad, knowledge-rich, sequential curriculum for one focused on relevance or on helping students find their purposes. Rather, I recommend that we take the far less disruptive steps of ensuring that every educator knows and can articulate what education is for and that every educator knows and can demonstrate how to create the conditions in which genuine, non-coerced motivation for learning are nurtured.
- A good place to start the “what education is for” bit is the first chapter of These 6 Things — freely available here, no sign-up required — and a needed addition to that chapter's thinking is here re: moral engagement.
- A good place to start the “conditions in which genuine, inside-out motivation for learning” bit is this one-hour recording of a webinar I gave yesterday on the five key beliefs beneath non-coerced motivation. (Note: the recording also includes 45 minutes of Q&A — feel free to enjoy those or skip them).
Let's end with a brief expansion on that last point. The five key beliefs way of thinking about student motivation is powerful in that it humanizes the student, empowers the teacher, and gives the school a precious goal. Humanization happens when we acknowledge the importance of what our children believe and seek to create the conditions within which key beliefs are nurtured. Teachers are empowered because they can do something about the key beliefs — after all, research is clear that these things are malleable and context-dependent. And schools are given a goal because if enough classrooms in a child's day become beliefs-rich environments, more students will reach the critical mass of contexts required to make the beliefs durable.
In short, carrots and sticks don't have to be the primary thing driving our children to do the work of learning, and we don't even need to remove the carrots/sticks system in order to start enacting this humanizing change in our classrooms and schools.