Personalized Learning Opinion

Motivation Management: The Foundational Skill in Learner-Centered Education

By Kim Carter — October 09, 2018 7 min read
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This post is by Kim Carter, the Executive Director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, an organization of adults and youth working together to create and sustain student-centered learning communities, and a former Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow.

Kicking off his high school graduation defense, Kelsey welcomes panelists and audience members, announcing his intention to prove that he is ready to move “on to adult life.” In his introduction, he explains his plan to map his journey through high school using motivation as his compass. “Throughout my growth, I’ve moved through many stages,” he says. “I’ve had to find various sources of motivation to keep me going in my career as a student.”

Kelsey isn’t alone. Too often educators and students alike assume people either have motivation or they don’t. If they don’t, common wisdom says we can make them want to do something by using rewards and punishments. As Daniel Pink’s book Drive so aptly illustrates, however, we have decades of research evidence that extrinsic motivators—those “carrots and sticks"—aren’t that effective. The real source of all learners’ most powerful motivations, it turns out, comes from within.

Highly valued social-emotional dispositions such as resilience, perseverance, self-regulation, and growth mindsets are rooted in the development of what educational psychologists call “intrinsic motivation,” a critical element to achieving deeper learning outcomes. It’s INtrinsic not EXtrinsic because it’s INside us, not EXternal to us. The desire to do something is felt strongest when it is experienced internally rather than imposed externally. Like intelligence, skill, moods, and relationships, motivation is wholly dependent on one’s regard for one’s situation. That means context matters, and it matters a lot. This is also why it makes little sense to say there are “motivated people” or “unmotivated people.” There are only people who find particular contexts (un)motivating and respond accordingly. As Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula put it, “Simply stated, motivation is better understood as an alterable state than a permanent trait; it is highly susceptible to modification as conditions vary.” It’s also fundamental to taking a truly student-centered learning approach.

Learners become aware of and learn to manage their motivations through experience, particularly when they have guides—teachers, mentors, parents, coaches—who help them pay attention to and reflect on their experiences and feelings in a personalized way. Kelsey’s advisor, Elizabeth, intentionally integrates research on motivation into her practice. Elizabeth’s starting point is to build relationships with her advisees so she can “link anything and everything” to students’ interests. She helped Kelsey find ways to focus on projects he liked doing: In Elizabeth’s words, “Encouraging connections to video games, samurai, and draft horses was my first coaching gambit with him.” This was a solid initial strategy, since it’s easier to maintain momentum when we’re doing something we enjoy and that’s rooted in our own lives.

The problem for Kelsey, as he observed in his presentation, was that “after I’d done all the work I liked doing I was left with all the work I didn’t like. I realized if I wanted to graduate I needed something more. The second kind of motivation I found was a survival motivation. This motivation kept me going with my education, meeting the minimal requirements.” To help Kelsey make the shift to work he was less invested in—and less secure about—taking insights from Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Elizabeth noted that she focused on “shrinking the change, building momentum with ‘small wins’ that could snowball into bigger accomplishments.” Peter Senge, cofounder of the Academy for Systemic Change and author of The Fifth Discipline, notes there are only two kinds of motivation: desperation and aspiration. We need aspirations to keep us going for the long haul, and desperation is only good for short bursts of effort. Finding opportunities to celebrate successes, of whatever size, enabled Kelsey to shift from operating out of desperation to discovering aspirations to help him push through.

Along with finding those “small wins,” Elizabeth focused a portion of her daily communications with Kelsey on his goal setting, during which they would “talk honestly about pacing and how to manage it.” From these conversations, Kelsey started “to rely on other people’s approval of me for motivation. I didn’t want to disappoint people in my life, so I refused to drop out even if that would have been the easier way in the short run.” As his goal-setting became more ambitious, Kelsey also externalized his chief sources of motivation. In his desire to please and to bond with others, he began to position them as the drivers of his success. There is a preponderance of evidence regarding the value of relationships in keeping youth engaged in school and in learning, but without internally derived sources of motivation, youth will have difficulty generating the internal fire needed to sustain effort amid challenges.

And so, Kelsey hit another roadblock: being too externally-focused, he forgot the core interests and goals that were driving his quest to succeed. “I lost sight of myself. I started feeling like a robot.” Monitoring Kelsey’s progress, Elizabeth shifted her advising stance slightly, “taking on some of the pacing so he could focus on the work.” Her shift relieved enough pressure for Kelsey to realize “if I was going to graduate I had to make myself do it. I had to be determined to graduate from MC 2.” She created the space for Kelsey to truly own his learning.

A core purpose of building relationships in learner-centered education is to support our young people in recognizing, expanding, and applying their knowledge and skills so that they become the main authors of their life stories. Ultimately, when it comes to motivating relationships, the most important relationship we can cultivate is with ourselves.

At this point in his learning development, Kelsey knew what he needed to do and how to do it. He needed coaching to develop and embed the deeper learning competencies, called “habits” at his school, that make up his intrinsic motivational “toolbox.” Elizabeth’s role shifted yet again to collaborator, explicitly supporting Kelsey as he strategized how to leverage his strengths, such as critical thinking and ownership, while developing his challenges, which included organization and management.

Kelsey valued Elizabeth’s transparency with this last strategy, assuming and taking pride in responsibility for its effectiveness. “The habits have played a crucial part in my schooling and have allowed me to grow in maturity. I’ve been able to use self-direction, management, and quality work. To put that into normal language, when I’m at work I demonstrate a good work ethic. I show professionalism and I set realistic goals for what I need to get done for that day. With those skills learned, I have now succeeded where I thought I’d fail. As I started to realize what I’m capable of, I used the habits to focus on my determination to graduate.”

Kelsey brings his graduation defense to a close, stating, “In the course of pushing myself to graduate from MC 2, I have realized what I’m capable of when I become determined.”

The motivational “stages” Kelsey presented in his graduation defense illustrate key findings and strategies about human motivation:

1. Go with the Flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified flow as “an enjoyable state that functions as a powerful catalyst of self-sustaining learning.” Importantly, added Reed Larsen, David Shernoff, and Janine Bempechat,“people who are in a state of intrinsic motivation employ more effective learning strategies, and they encode information more deeply.”

2. Belonging matters. Research shows the value of being of significance, being connected to others, and making a contribution to someone/something outside of one’s self. Inspiration offers a pathway to aspiration. Authentic achievement—the kind that offers meaning and purpose—is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

3. Relationships, relationships, relationships. It’s no surprise that the word “relationships” appears at the top of almost every list that pays even the smallest amount of attention to how learning happens. Trust develops through relationships. Knowing a learner’s strengths, challenges, affinities, concerns, interests, culture, and passions help us connect him or her to the larger world, to people and projects that have the potential to spark curiosity, investment, and even joyful engagement.

4. Know thyself. Self-awareness: Ultimately, responsibility for motivation has to reside with the learner. The more self-knowledge the learner has, the better s/he/they can shape their own path to maintain momentum.

If you want to explore further, check out Kathleen Cushman’s The Motivation Equation; The Complexities of Motivation: The Uncertainty of Predicting Behaviors, Part I, Part II, and Part III; and the Making Community Connections Charter School.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.