Monday, September 27, 2010

The Problem of Motivation

Students' motivation or lack thereof in the academic arena has been on my mind in these first weeks of school.  Like many semesters,  I have had conversations with numerous students about motivation and lack of work completion.  My colleagues have shared the same concerns.  As always, I find myself wondering what I/ we might be doing wrong where students' work completion lies. 

My thinking about this topic was, again, prompted today as I read Alfie  Kohn's recent article, "Schools would be great if it weren't for the kids".  Among many issues, this article begs the question of why kids don't enjoy school, a question Kohn answers by detailing our reliance on grades and test scores.  By removing intrinsic motivation and making students' rewards and punishments external, we have sucked the joy from learning, he argues. 

I enjoy Kohn's writing as, oftentimes, I am incensed by his opinions and they challenge my thinking.  I kept thinking, as I read the article, about a quote from Romeo and Juliet published in 1597, obviously a text that doesn't fit in the contemporary education realm.  Romeo describes his feelings as he departs from Juliet's room:  "Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks" (Shakespeare II.2.156-7).  Romeo goes toward love, embodied in Juliet, as schoolboys go away from their books, but moves away from her as he goes to school: downtrodden and dismal.  A later Shakespearean text published in 1623 captures the same melancholic attitude toward school:  "the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/ And shining morning face, creeping like a snail/ Unwillingly to school" (II.7.2.145–147).  Shakespeare describes this 17th century English schoolboy as whiney, slow-moving and unwilling as he walks toward his educational realm.

Now I'm not saying Kohn's ideas don't possess merit.  I certainly wouldn't contest that schools rely heavily, perhaps too heavily, on grades and test scores.  Some of our struggles with student movitation probably do stem from their tiredness with extrinsic motivators, but I question whether, as Kohn claims, this is simply a modern American problem.  Over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare and his culture seemed to possess that same lack of motivation, that same lackadaisical attitude toward school.  I am sure it was because of students' frustration with CSAP scores...


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Motivation has been a topic I've been thinking about for a while now. As a sixth grade teacher it is something that I combat daily. Your insight in looking back in history provides some good balance in my thinking.

    I'd recommend reading Dan Pink's book DRIVE when you get a chance. I read it this past summer and learned a lot from his thoughts on the science behind motivation.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts - have a great evening!

  2. Johnathan,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I have heard many sing the praises of this text. Guess it's time to pick it up! :)