Educational Motivation: Examining the Ways Teachers Can Motivate Students

Perhaps the most difficult problem educators face today is a lack of interest from their students. Often, teachers are expected to generate and interest for the subject in the students, a very daunting task. When a student arrives at class, if he or she is unmotivated or uninterested in the subject, the teacher’s words, actions, activities and lesson plans immediately drop in their effectiveness. Knowing that this occurrence is inevitable, teachers must ask themselves the question: How can I motivate my students?

B.F. Skinner, Jerome Bruner, and Donald Norman have posed answers to this question. From Skinner’s point of view, the teacher is best able to motivate students to learn when she positively reinforces each correct response from each student. His “schedules of intermittent reinforcement” are “necessary to maintain the [desired] behavior in strength” (Skinner 87). One goal of any teacher is that the knowledge learned in his subject will be maintained for long periods of time after the class has ended. While on the surface, Skinner’s suggestions may appear to have a very logical and appropriate basis, upon further investigation they become highly unrealistic.

For example, it cannot be expected of any teacher that he will continue to provide positive reinforcements to students after those students have left that teacher’s class. Also, it is necessary to note that while his theories deal with the subject of motivation, Skinner himself argues that his suggestions are not necessarily intended to motivate students saying, “Many of these effects would be traditionally assigned to the field of motivation, although the principal operation is simply to arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement” (Skinner 87). If then, Skinner’s ideas and suggestions are not realistic and not intended to provide teachers with an answer to the question of motivation, where can they go for further enlightenment?

In the introduction of his The Process of Education, Jerome Bruner deals briefly with the subject of motivation. However, he disagrees heavily with Skinner and feels that external reinforcements are not an effective motivator for students. Bruner argues, “Ideally, interest in the material to be learned is the best stimulus to learning, rather than such external goals as grades or later competitive advantage” (Bruner 14). Unfortunately, this does little to answer the question of motivation except to suggest that external reinforcement do not work. Later, Bruner discusses the importance of structure in learning and suggests that educators must focus on “designing a curricula in a way that reflects the basic structure of a field of knowledge” (Bruner 32).

Bruner’s point that an interest in the subject can be generated if the teacher focuses on the complexity of the structure of a subject rather than reducing it to its most simplistic fundamentals is one that deserves consideration. Unfortunately, in this section of Bruner’s book, he does not deal with how teachers are to motivate students who are not fascinated with the complexities of a subject and so the question, to some degree, remains yet unanswered.

In his Some Reflections on Learning, Donald Norman discusses the iceberg metaphor of teaching and learning and it is here a more complete answer to the motivation question can be found. Norman argues that the problem with motivation is that teachers are only aware of a limited amount of material above the surface regarding each student. He says, “The teacher must postulate some underlying knowledge structure to explain what the student does. The problem is that numerous underlying structures can be postulated, and the peaks do not at all reflect the complexity of the student’s underlying knowledge structure” (Norman Figure 18-1). Norman’s suggestion that teachers can discover how to best motivate each student by getting to know that student’s “underlying structure” better deserves merit though it poses a few problems. This individualized theory offers educators a better insight into each student’s uniqueness and it is with this unique, individual understanding that teachers can finally come to know what it is that motivates their students and subsequently draw on that knowledge to further motivate students in their classrooms.

Now, it is not to say that Norman’s suggestion does not pose as many problems as the earlier suggestions. Indeed, the complex nature of each student can never be completely known by a teacher in the five hours per week they spend together. However, the question of how to motivate students has been in some sense answered whereas the earlier suggestions were implausible or did not include all students in their answering attempts. Perhaps unfortunately, Norman’s answer breeds an entirely new set of questions for educators based on the question: How can I get to know my students more deeply?

Fortunately, as educators, we live and breathe by challenges and unanswerable questions and so we will tackle this question with as much gusto and energy as we do all questions with the ultimate goal of someday discovering our own ability to truly reach students.

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