Education Opinion

How to “Bake” Intrinsic Motivation: A Holiday Recipe for Your Classroom or School

By Sam Chaltain — December 16, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Intrinsic motivation: We want students to have it so they will choose to do the work of learning. But how do we reach that goal? We can’t require motivation, nor can we teach it. Textbook and software companies cannot possibly create a book from which students can learn motivation. It’s highly unlikely students will ever hear, “Class, please open your intrinsic motivation book to page 134" or “open your motivation-development app.” Intrinsic motivation is just that -- intrinsic. It comes from within.

Daniel Pink laid out a research-based formula in his bestselling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Intrinsic motivation, Pink asserts, comes when people have autonomy, mastery and purpose. Interestingly, some have been emphasizing a similar notion in K-12 for years. Mark Van Ryzin, Ron Newell, and their colleagues from The Hope Survey, for example, have been working on a recipe.

Getting students to develop their own intrinsic motivation is kind of like getting those fresh-out-of-the-oven holiday cookies, they say. Even with every other holiday priority competing, if you want those fresh-out-of-the oven cookies then you need to bake them with some key ingredients. You can’t get them off the shelf. If the ingredients aren’t there, then ...well... you won’t get the cookies. “It’s the same with intrinsic motivation,” Hope Survey proponent Keven Kroehler says. “It has to be baked, and all the ingredients must be there.”

Here’s the recipe:

1. Autonomy. This is the butter in the cookies. Students must perceive they have self-management and choice. If it isn’t real, like using margarine or tofu instead of butter, the students can usually tell.
2. Mastery goal orientation. This is like brown sugar. A “learning” or “mastery” or “task” goal orientation represents a desire to achieve purely for the purpose of obtaining knowledge and increasing skills. Special tip for bakers: avoid performance goal orientation! This is like putting tabasco sauce in cookies. If students in a school have performance goal orientation they believe the purpose of all activity in the classroom is not the enjoyment of learning or to satisfy personal interest but to demonstrate superiority or avoid the appearance of failure. It isn’t sustainable, spoils the recipe for intrinsic motivation, and can be detrimental to student achievement.
3. Academic press. This is the flour. Academic press is a measure of students’ perception that there is a consistently high expectation on the part of the teachers that individual students will do their best work. The emphasis is on teachers’ press for understanding while maintaining mastery goal orientation and student choice, rather than a press for performance.
4. Belongingness. This is like eggs, which bind the other ingredients together and act as a leavening agent. “Belongingness” is a measure of the depth and quality of the interpersonal relationships in an individual’s life. The need to belong, or the need to form strong, mutually supportive relationships and to maintain these relationships through regular contact, is a fundamental human motivation that can affect emotional patterns and cognitive processes. Supportive relationships can serve to buffer the impact of stressful life events, leading to superior adjustment and well-being. Teacher-student relationships can help; so can peer-to-peer relationships.

School/classroom climates should mix all of the above ingredients. First, the ingredients will lead to student engagement. Engaged students increase their hope. Engaged, hopeful students, supported with this climate over time, can develop their own intrinsic motivation and, with that, improved academic performance.

Please note you might want to add to this recipe! Improving it with oatmeal and raisins might be needed, or maybe you just need some salt and baking soda. Getting to the perfect recipe might take some time.

Measuring students’ intrinsic motivation might seem “off” at first consideration. It can seem like another unreasonable layer of accountability: if intrinsic motivation is something schools don’t really teach, and if it really comes from within, then how can schools or teachers be accountable for it? It can also seem like another thing to pin on students and their parents that lets schools off the hook. “Well, Johnny, you didn’t have intrinsic motivation. You really must get better at that. It would help you with the academics. No matter how much math we teach you here at school, if you don’t have motivation rooted in your home life then we can’t help.”

These are valid fears, and The Hope Survey developers worry about other organizations that are advancing assessment tools for students’ motivation. Will developers make mistakes that lead people to use the tools in these ways? Van Ryzin said, for example, that “some of those studies leave a big unanswered question: if a student is low on hope, or assets, or whatever else, then what? The Hope Survey is measuring whether aspects of the school climate support students’ development of intrinsic motivation. It’s about improving schools to support student development of intrinsic motivation, and making that an important, valued outcome.”

The Hope Survey team firmly believes that schools using the tool must have a plan for what comes next, after The Hope Survey is administered. There must be intent on the part of educators not to define the students by their scores, but instead to make adjustments to the school culture to make it a place that can better support its students in building their intrinsic motivation.

The Hope Survey breaks scores down into each “ingredient” and the group behind it offers relatively low-cost consulting, coaching, and technical assistance to schools or departments, or grade-level teachers, as they figure out professional development plans. If a middle school administrator, or even a group of teachers in a middle school math department, decided to administer the survey to their students, for example, they could see which particular teachers are doing well in a particular area of the “recipe” and then arrange professional development to learn from those teachers. Teachers will have different strengths. Collectively, they can bolster the culture to promote motivation and, along with it, academic performance.

Kroehler reports that even in schools where teachers were only empowered to focus on one ingredient educators were able to raise their overall Hope Survey score--not to the full extent possible, but it is a start! Data show that as hope scores/intrinsic motivation increases, so does the ability of students to improve academically in the areas of math and reading.

Now that’s a recipe worth trying. Maybe we’ll even make a few tweaks, customize it for varying populations and cultures, and, in time, hand it down to future generations.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.