401. Motivation

Some teachers seem to have ways of getting children to take charge of their own learning. Of course, some parents do, too, and some children seem naturally self-motivated. Whether we give most of the credit to teachers, parents, children, or nature, it’s pretty impressive to watch a child who has transcended the need for motivational strategies. It feels good, and it makes one wonder whether all children could be that way, and if not, why not.
It could be argued that no one is really self-motivated. People are motivated by their experiences and perceptions, which do involve people and things outside themselves. But that may be nit-picking; there are people who connect easily with motivational forces, and we call them “self-motivated.”
Still, the job of a teacher is certainly easier if children have their own reasons for wanting to learn what the teacher wants them to learn. Of course, all children can be said to be self-motivated, but not all are motivated to do what the teacher has in mind.
So in one sense, no one is self-motivated, and in another sense, everyone is. And I think both points are useful in planning lessons. One time, I was trying to explain to third-graders what “taxation without representation” was all about, and why colonists were so angry about it. It was almost recess time, and I got an idea. I decided to take a vote. We could go out to recess early if a majority of voters wanted to. But you had to be over ten years old to vote. My teaching assistant and I were the only ones in the room over ten years old, and we voted not to have an early recess. Suddenly, the children understood why the colonists had been so angry (incidentally, we did go out to recess early).
A teacher may be very motivated to teach something that children are not at all motivated to learn. It’s too bad when that happens, but teachers are supposed to anticipate that problem, and either figure out how to motivate children, or forego the lesson. Teachers can get so excited about what they want to teach that they forget about children’s motivation or lack thereof, and they bomb. I write this from personal experience.
Good grades can motivate children. So can other artificial bribes. Children work so that they can get stickers, stars, privileges, and more. When these rewards are used, they are supposed to be phased out; children are supposed to
find that the learning or behavior that gets them those external rewards is actually pretty rewarding in its own right. If not, an awful lot of time and/or money is wasted on bribes.
Bad grades and other threats can also provide motivation, but only if children perceive a feasible way to avoid failing. If not, children come to think of the bad stuff as what school is all about, and look forward to getting it over with.
When teachers get bogged down in these attempts to artificially motivate children, they can easily forget that the best lessons are the ones that are their own rewards – that learning itself is actually fun.

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