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Educators as Leaders: Motivating Appropriately

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!


Helping Boys Succeed in School – Brain Differences and Masculinity

Synopsis: Tainted perspectives on masculinity and ignorance to differences in the way boys and girls learn and function is a bad recipe for boy’s academic performance and behavior.

For decades gender bias concerns have been focused on girls not getting equal treatment in school. In a study ran by the American Association of University women (1992) It was found that: girls were not called on as much as boys, girls generally did worse in math/science, boys led athletics, and that girls suffered drops in self-esteem as they entered middle and high school. Many advocacies groups sparked from these findings and positive strides have been made to improving upon these statistics.

On the other hand, since the beginning of data collection in education it has been found that boys underperform in school.   The National Center for Education Statistics (2000) found that boys are one and one-half years behind girls in reading/writing, while girls are only slightly behind boys in math/science (Conlin, 2003).

Gurian and Stevens (2007) highlighted these findings in an article named With Boys and Girls in Mind. They go on to underline some key statistics in regards to boy’s academic achievement that are extremely troubling:

·      Boys earn 70 percent of Ds and Fs and fewer than half of the As

·      Boys account for two-thirds of learning disability diagnoses

·      Boys represent 90 percent of discipline referrals

·      80 percent of high school dropouts are male

·      Males make up fewer than 40 percent of college students (Gurian et al., 2001)

·      It is boys that are mostly (over) diagnosed with learning disorders like ADD/ADHD

o   And over prescribed with medication.

The organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2003) released a study showing that females out perform males in academic achievement in every country.

Gender equality does not mean curriculum equality. Boys and girls should receive the same amount of education quality, but not the same education. Research has shown significant differences in the way minds of girls and boys function in relation to learning. Girl’s have been shown to have a larger hippocampus (memory storage area in the brain), stronger neural connectors (more sensually detailed memory storage, listening skills, etc.), and a faster developed/more active prefrontal cortex (reducing impulsivity). Boy’s brains have also been shown to have less oxytocin (a bonding chemical that helps neutralize impulsivity) and compartmentalize learning (less multitasking ability).

It is these differences in the brain between boys and girls that help explain why girls do significantly better in school. It also clarifies why boys generally do better and are more interested in math and physics than girls are and why boys tend to get in trouble more in school for issues related to impulsivity.

To this point, I have heavily paraphrased the article by Gurian and Stevens (2007) to highlight some of the major brain differences between boys and girls in relation to learning and its effects on differences in academic performance. I believe these differences are vital to consider when developing curriculum and educational policy. On the other hand, I believe a far more critical component to consider when discussing the gender gap in academic performance is boy’s social norms and perceptions of masculinity.

The issue of tainted perceptions of masculinity not only negatively effects boys performance in schools; it is also encourages violence against women. A societal shift in attitudes about “what makes you a man” has taken a turn in a dangerous direction. The goal of being a gentleman is now seen as a weakman. Fathers (and mothers alike) are constantly telling their young boys to “be a man” – a term that usually refers to showing less emotion or more aggression. Masculinity today does not value empathy, compassion, or caring, but rather the demanding of respect and the display of dominance.

It is these new (depressing) attitudes towards masculinity that have led to boys doing worse in academia and the increasing rate of violence against women. It is important that educators take into account both the differences in the brain between males and females, as well as the changing social norms that affect the way boys learn and behave in school. Further, educators should take responsibility for being the first line of defense to these outlandish revolutions of masculinity and do their best to stop it in its tracks by consulting with parents, administrators, and with the children themselves to correct such a destructive phenomenon.

I have been a part of groups that are considered by most as potentially some of the most masculine groups anyone can be affiliated with (according to the current shift in masculinity perceptions): a combat career field in the US Military (TACP), a Rowing team, and a Basketball team. I would argue that the masculinity associated with these groups is not and should not be based on their dominance, aggression, strength, or respect, but rather their courage, compassion, and commitment to the team for a shared goal. I have mentioned in previous posts that educators are not only teachers; educators are coaches, mentors, and parents alike. That being said, it is the responsibility of members of these groups that are categorized as “masculine” to be role models for the youth and carefully demonstrate what exactly it means to “be a man”. The focus should be taken off aggression and displays of dominance (perhaps better categorized as signs of compensation rather than masculinity) and more concentrated on compassion and commitment. This shift to a more appropriate definition of masculinity will help boys with behavior issues in school and help men with behavior issues in life.

American Association of University Women. (1992). AAUW Report: How schools shortchange girls. American Association of University Women Foundation.

Conlin, M. (2003, May 26). The new gender gap. Business Week Online. Available:

Gurian, M., Henley, P., & Trueman, T. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently! A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley.

Gurian, M., & Stevens, K. (2007). With boys and girls in mind.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). National Assessment of Educational Progress: The nation’s report card. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2003). The PISA 2003 assessment framework.

Educators as Mentors: Motivation and Expectations

Synopsis: Whether they like it or not, educators are often seen as mentors. Similar to parenting, this important role comes with little training or preparation, but serious consequences if negligent. How important are educators’ expectations and their ability to motivate?


The importance of expectations, praise, and mentorship is undervalued in the classroom. It is almost as if some educators see these components of education as extracurricular. I have heard to often from educators (teachers and coaches alike) that “they don’t have to like me, just respect me”; unfortunately, it is very difficult to be respected and not liked. Further, it is this same attitude that leads to a lack of concern for expectations and for careful wording when providing praise and feedback to students.

Expectations are powerful in any learning environment. The classic Pygmalion study emphasized the influence of educator expectations by administrating a test to underprivileged children that was explained as being a strong predictor of significant intellectual growth. The names of the students who earned the highest scores on this test were to be given to the teachers. In fact, the names distributed to the teachers were chosen at random by researchers. After students were retested eight months later, results indicated that those students whose teachers believed initially to have received higher scores actually ended up scoring significantly higher than other students.

Keeping expectancy effects in mind, good educators are aware of the capabilities and potential of their students and make it a personal goal to push them to reach/surpass it. That being said, educators should be aware that what the student thinks or says is their “best” is probably far from what is actually their “best”. The students “best” is rarely good enough; the educators “best” is the target.

It could be argued that educators are not responsible for being mentors or motivators, yet they are put in that position regardless of their intentions. Normally, this weight would land on the shoulders of parents rather than educators. We all know the strong influence of parenting on academic success and it is usually linked to the expectations and motivation discussed. Nonetheless, educators, at the very least, should be aware of the consequences of negative expectations and its influences on student’s performance.

Unfortunately, educators don’t always have the luxury of students with adequate parenting. Educators are often in the best position to provide the mentorship necessary for students to succeed academically when parent support is limited or even worse, debilitating.

While I believe that particular teaching models and certain educational policies would improve education as a whole, it is proper mentorship (positive expectations and motivation) that is most influential on student learning. I am a strong believer that “grit” is more important than IQ in regards to academic success, yet it is very clear to me that developing a “gritty” personality is not possible without appropriate mentorship.

My current research explores unconscious and unintentional teaching practices and its impact on education. In doing so, I investigate individual differences like the grit and mindset of educators and its influence on perceived intelligence of students. My interests in this area stems from a belief that we must uncover potential limitations to proper mentorship so that educators can impartially educate regardless of first impressions.

I can relate first hand to the importance of mentorship in a students life. I struggled through my early public education years of schooling primarily because of a lack of expectations and motivation from my biological parents. Thankfully, I had strong mentors that stepped in at the most critical period of my adolescence. Till this day I doubt that my academic achievement has anything to do with my intelligence level, but rather the combination of the motivation, expectations and grit my mentors instilled in me. I am not here to say that an educator can step into a similar situation with the same kind of impact, but they should at least understand its effect, recognize the potential consequences, and do their best to expect and motivate accordingly.