Intrinsic motivation is that which causes you or me or anyone to engage in behaviors that arise from within us because those behaviors are naturally satisfying. Self Determination Theory or SDT provides a complex and thorough understanding of why we do what we do, but for educators, a subset of SDT explains that intrinsic motivation to learn is influenced by three things: having an opportunity to feel as though one has some control or autonomy in one’s life, being connected in a meaningful way to others, and being provided with opportunities to feel competent. Unfortunately, (according to my non-scientific sample of one) far too few American educators are familiar with this motivational theory, which is generally accepted by educators around the world.
In addition to research stretching back to the Sixties that supports SDT, there is long-standing and accepted research that supports the importance and effect of teacher expectations and student achievement, and I believe that relationship is related to the three factors identified above that I like to think of as The Three C’s: control, connection, and competence. I suggest that when the three C’s are present in a classroom, they enhance or even awaken the intrinsic motivation to learn that was in each of us when we were four-years-old, but which has been gold-starred, student-of-the-weeked, and attaboyed out of us by the time we are in fifth grade (See What Happens to Four-Year-Olds?), and I hypothesize that these three factors are present in the classrooms of teachers that have high expectations.
Teachers who have high expectations do not need to coerce, threaten, or provide tangible rewards to produce desired behaviors because they teach with sincere enthusiasm and well-honed skills. The effect in such classrooms is an unspoken but clearly conveyed insinuation on the part of the teacher that students have the choice to participate in the class, i.e. students feel the freedom of controlling their own individual involvement. In addition to this “clearly conveyed insinuation,” teachers with high expectations often provide deliberate choices for students regarding…
- how to approach problem-solving (there are often multiple approaches that can be used)
- which problems to investigate (each problem always being focused on specific learning targets within the curriculum)
- choices related to how a student may respond (e.g. verbally, visually, and/or written, the creativity of which is enhanced with the encouraged use technology)
Choices such as the above—even when combined with moments of “traditional” teaching strategies—can create the sense of autonomy or control that fires a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn.
Teachers with high expectations foster and nurture a classroom culture where even the most reticent of students cannot help but feel a personal connection with the adult in that tiny world.
The usual, often principal-required, first-day ritual of going over classroom rules and procedures had bored me to death during my first years in the classroom, and I was certain students were more bored than I because every one of their teachers did the same thing. If any students come to the first day of the school year enthusiastic about learning—especially middle school students—I suggest that enthusiasm is often diminished by the persistent drone of teachers telling them about rules and procedures and consequences from the beginning to the end of that first day.
More importantly, beginning a relationship with students by focusing on consequences for not following rules is not conducive to nurturing the connection between a teacher and individual students, which is a significant component in an individual’s intrinsic motivation to learn.
I was (and remain) certain that basic classroom rules and procedures were fairly uniform across all classrooms, and by seventh grade, there would not be one student who did not know what those rules were likely to be (especially those students who consistently challenged them!). Since I knew my new students already knew the basic rules, I decided to flip my usual Day 2 lesson with that of a usual Day 1 lesson that focused upon rules and procedures (and distribution of textbooks, et al).
An important part of the change, and one that enhanced my connection with students who did not know me from Adam, was implied trust: I told them that because I knew they knew the general rules of classroom behavior, we were going to get right into science. In order to allay any anxiety that some students might have about the existance of classroom rules and procedures in my classroom (a real problem for those students who often are stressed by the absence of or lack of compliance to rules, e.g. students likely to be bullied), I told my classes that we would review classroom rules and procedures during Day 2, and that I would certainly point out any behaviors that were inappropriate, should any arise during our first session together.
Using an interactive, constructivist lesson on that first day, a lesson based on the conviction that learning occurs when students are given the opportunity to construct meaning and knowledge (how humans naturally learn) instead of the traditional approach of students passively receiving information (e.g. taking notes, which is not how humans naturally learn), students were readily engaged in the lesson and began to understand that…
- I was an adult who welcomed and valued their input
- Anything offered was worthy of consideration
- Ideas could be ventured without fear of rejection by their peers (I intervened without firmly but without rancour to counter peer rejection on the rare instances when it occurred)
- I actually enjoyed them as individuals and as a class
Because of the above, students and I began to connect on that first day of our adventure together.
In the years that I used this approach—my last six years in the classroom, which included thirty iterations of this approach—there was not one instance where a student violated the norms of appropriate behavior, and this with classes composed primarily of disadvantaged students, many of whom had been identified with behavioral and learning challenges who viewed school as a place of failure and rejection by a category of adults they had come to distrust—teachers.
High expectations from teachers may be rare occurrences for many students. When students sense that a teacher has high expectations for them as individuals (experiencing high expectations is a “feeling” or affect phenomenon), those high expectations, I suggest, contain a strong subliminal message that students can interpret as, “this adult actually thinks I can do these challenging things; maybe I actually can do what I’m being expected to do; maybe I’m not as stupid as some teachers have seemed to think I am.”
Coupled with high expectations on the part of the teacher is the old-fashioned moral view that teaching is a calling and demands high effort and personal sacrifice on the part of the teacher, particularly when it comes to using instructional best practices and close attention to the needs of students for whom learning has long been a challenge.
This brings to light another essential expectation of teachers that colleagues of my generation often do not know or understand: the purpose of instruction is not to sort students, i.e. produce results that fall along a normal distribution curve; rather, the purpose of instruction in a standards-based environment is to do whatever one can do to bring about results that indicate mastery of what students should know and be able to do (competence) by all students, or as close to “all” as is possible, i.e. produce results that fall along a J curve skewed toward mastery.
It is very likely that sensing high expectations from an adult with whom a student feels emotionally connected in a classroom that provides learning choices can foster a sense of competency inside the student’s mind, which brings about a self-fulfilling prophesy of manifest competence. Of course, a student that has the opportunity to provide direct evidence of mastery of clearly delineated targets—the result of instructional best practices couched in sound motivation theory and the use of assessments aligned with those targets—should be the penultimate goal of every teacher.
Afterword: I fully realize there are students who are burdened with serious emotional challenges. Borderline Personality Disorder among students who have been exposed to significant trauma is one such challenge that is difficult for a competent classroom teacher to overcome without significant professional support for the student, which is seldom available in the most challenged of schools. I know that “…even the most reticent of students cannot help but feel a personal connection with the adult in that tiny world” is a strong statement, and it is important to me that you know I have personally experienced exceptions to that strong statement. It is also important to me that you know I never used those frustrating exceptions to justify a diminution of the effort required of an effective teacher.