Synopsis: Educators should be cautious not to over use extrinsic motivators when trying to engage their students in the classroom. Extrinsic motivators may be beneficial in simple and repetitive tasks, but it has also been shown to be detrimental to complex thinking and creativity – the foundations of education.

In many ways, I believe educators are leaders – they innovate, motivate, manage, and lead by example. Leadership is just another extra-curricular duty of educators that is often overlooked. The association between the roles of educators and leaders is not an automatic or intuitive one by any means. Perhaps it is because educators are seen as leading children or young adults, rather than same age peers. Nonetheless, educators still need many of the same leadership skills business leaders need to effectively lead and teach a class. Unfortunately, there is a vast amount of research on leadership (intended for business leaders) that is not being pushed to our educators.  To be fair, it seems businesses’ aren’t applying the science very well either. Dan Pink mentions in a TED video “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”; I would extend that to what “education does” as well.

One of the main tasks of good leaders is being in charge of motivation. In education, this is commonly referred to as engagement. Educators are often encouraged to “engage” their students by taking the lesson out of the classroom, encouraging discussion and debate, or making lessons interesting and relevant. There is another aspect of motivation though that is discussed less often: the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

As educators, it should be our goal to not only engage students, but also engage them appropriately. For instance, it is likely I could engage a class of Art students by telling them “the student who draws the best painting the fastest will get $100”. I can assure you most students in the class will seem “engaged”. There are many issues with this type of extrinsic motivation though. To begin with, Dan Pink mentions how extrinsic motivation works in some circumstances, but for most tasks extrinsic motivators (like money) not only doesn’t work, but actually does harm. Pink also mentions further a long in the video how extrinsic motivators often “dulls thinking and blocks creativity”. Thus, for simple tasks (i.e. industry work, repetitive factory jobs, etc.) extrinsic motivation might be useful, as creative and elaborate thinking isn’t really necessary. However, in an environment that is built on creativity and complex thought processes, extrinsic motivation is something educators should be extremely cautious of.

Some might argue that obviously giving students money to be engaged isn’t the best (or most practical) idea, yet many teachers commit a similar evil in the process of encouraging students to get good grades. If a kid asks an adult why they should get good grades or get an education, no one would be surprised or alarmed if the adult responded with one of the following answers:

·      So you can get a “good” job

·      So you can make a lot of money (usually through a “good” job)

·      So you can be “smart” or “educated”

·      So you can get a degree

In a society driven by the desire to be rich, powerful, famous, and well liked, many people have lost touch with the real purpose of education: to do what your passionate about and be happy. Unfortunately, I would be surprised if I heard that response more often than any of the responses above when asked about what the purpose of education is. Notice that all the responses above (for the most part) are extrinsic motivators dealing with money, prestige, and reputation.

Educators are in one of the best positions to shift this focus to the real purpose of education. They are in great positions because for the most part, educators are intrinsically motivated! We all know educators don’t get the respect, prestige, or pay they deserve compared to other professions (with exceptions in countries like Finland, which by the way, has arguably the best education system in the world). Thus, educators know what it feels like to do what they love not for the money or the prestige, but because they enjoy their job and it makes them happy.

Perhaps the broad concept of motivating students to get an education based on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators seems too comprehensive to be an issue for teachers in the classroom; some may argue it is more relevant to a school counselor, mentor, or parent. First, I would like to highlight (as I do in most of my posts) that when I refer to educators it usually includes mentors, coaches, and parents alike. In regards to teachers in the classroom specifically though, it is vital that teachers that are trying to engage students in specific subjects do so in an appropriate manner. For example, a math teacher should attempt to shift the motivation from “you need to do well in my class so you can get good grades on the your exams” to “…so you can learn the fundamentals to do your dream job of being a fireman, architect, designer, etc.”. Getting to know students individually will be the best way to get them engaged in specific lessons as well as the class in general.

PRACTICAL CLASSROOM EXERCISE: After you think students have a good grasp on an algebra lesson, have them think of a way that lesson can be applicable to their dream job (i.e. Sammy decides to use algebra to calculate the amount of material needed to create a dress).

Further, I believe that educators, as leaders in the classroom, should move away from encouraging students towards a particular career based on their performance in that area. Maria shouldn’t be encouraged to be an accountant because she is good with numbers – she should be encouraged to be an accountant because she enjoys working with numbers! Leaders in business environments fall victim to the same dilemma: if you have someone who has an extra qualification as an accountant, but would much rather be a business consultant – are you going to motivate this person to follow his/her passion or further incentivize them (perhaps with a higher salary) to fit in where it suits you best? A good leader knows that job performance stems from intrinsic motivation – educators should consider this scientifically supported advice and apply it in the classroom accordingly.

It is likely that there is a broader issue at hand in this whole attempt to move past an extrinsically motivated classroom focused on “getting good grades to get a good job and make a lot of money”. As I mentioned earlier, our society seems to be driven by the desire for money, power, and prestige. To be fair, much of these drives may stem from a need for security – though, the line between the need for financial security vs. self-esteem security I believe is often blurred.

Imagine your son or daughter shows a clear passion for vehicles. He or she is fascinated by all the mechanics that make vehicles. Instead of wanting the “reliable” new car every teenager bargains with their parents for, this kid would love the challenge of taking a vehicle that doesn’t work and with a little time and effort, being the one who makes it run again. This same kid helps fix all his friends cars, not as a side job for money or as a favor, but as a hobby. He/she sees fixing cars as a challenge and talks about one day being able to create the unbreakable car with no need of any maintenance. All of these motivations to be a mechanic are intrinsic, yet I would not be surprised if a parent were to debate the decision to be a mechanic fueled by a host of extrinsic motivators like “you can make more money becoming a…” or “you would work a lot less if you focus on becoming a…”. I would inspire educators to instead push these dreams a step further by encouraging their students to become experts or innovators in the field, rather than diluting their passion based on misguided societal norms.

I like to think that educators have the students best intentions in mind, and by making the mistake to persuade students to go in a different route with their chosen career path, it is not so that the student is never happy in life. I believe that often times these mistakes are misguided by the desire to live vicariously through students who seem to have potential in an area of their own interest (i.e. I always wanted to be a mathematician, this student is good at math, I should encourage him to be a mathematician too – he would really love that). Too often though, it seems these mistakes may be driven by laziness or disinterest. It is much easier to give a blanket statement of motivation to a class of students than an encouraging discussion on their future based on each student’s specific interests.

My posts are intended to enlighten educators on topics they don’t think about or are not discussed often enough. In many cases, my posts are based on biases that educators may have towards students (i.e. gender biases, attractiveness biases, etc.). Other times though, the purpose of my posts is to highlight topics in education that are sensitive and debatable. The problem is, because they are sensitive, they are not debated enough.

Creativity and passion may come with a price. That price may be a lack of financial security or not fitting perfectly into societal norms. Unfortunately, it seems following ones passions and being creative often involves (or better yet, is categorized by) being different and in a world shaped by trends and standards, stepping outside the norms is often discouraged. I believe it is the educator’s role to help students understand these challenges, spark passion and creativity, and let them explore their passions without the fear of not conforming to societal boundaries.  This is no easy task, as educators must balance pushing students to dream big/different and informing students of realistic challenges. Somebody’s got to do it though!