Sunday, 03 April 2011 21:50

How We Manage Our Students

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In my most recent blog post I described the two main choices we have as teachers in managing our students.  The first choice is the most traditional and the most common, and it relies on the use of extrinsic motivation, namely rewards and punishments.  Though this choice is the one most of us learn in our credential programs, read about in our textbooks, and observe in our student teaching assignments, extrinsic motivation does nothing more than produce temporary obedience and carries with it a large cost because it undermines many of the worthwhile ideals and priorities we strive to promote in our classrooms.


The second choice nurtures intrinsic motivation, ignores the use of rewards completely, focuses on developing lasting habits and a strong team environment, and uses punishments as a VERY last resort, if at all.

The obvious question one may ask when considering these two very different philosophical approaches is this: “Why do teachers use extrinsic motivators in the first place?”  Before beginning to answer to this question, it’s important to place the question in perspective, and to do that, we must look at the big picture and realize that there is nothing about extrinsic motivation that is unique to teaching.  

The carrot-and-stick approach has been used for a very long time in the business world, in the military, on sports teams, and in a wide variety of other endeavors.  I think it’s reasonable to say that behavioristic approaches that use rewards and punishments to manipulate/control human behavior are deeply engrained in our American culture.

Now that we can understand this issue in a larger context and not as one that exists only in our classrooms, I’d like to turn our attention to the work of psychologist Douglas McGregor, who in the 1960’s developed the two theories of human behavior shown below: Theory X and Theory Y.  McGregor’s theories have had a deep impact on my teaching philosophy, and I share his ideas with parents every year at Back to School Night when describing my approach to classroom management.

(A complete citation of McGregor’s work and a full description of how his work connects to the work of teachers and students in our schools can be found in my Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8.)


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Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Theory X Assumptions of the Worker
1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.

2. Because of this human characteristic of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.

3. The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all.


Theory Y Assumptions of the Worker
1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

2. External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives.  Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which he is committed.

3. Commitment to objectives is a function of the rewards associated with their achievement.

4. The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.

5. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

6. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.
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McGregor’s theories suggest that, historically, people in power, such as managers and teachers, used rewards and punishments because they feel that they needed to do so.  Operating under Theory X assumptions, managers believed that without such a coercive approach, workers lacked the motivation of their own to put forth the effort required to get the job done.  Because of this perceived lack of internal motivation, management felt the need to control their workers externally through the use of fear and punishment.  

If managers and teachers truly embrace Theory X assumptions, then using extrinsic motivation in the workplace and the classroom serves a constructive purpose.  If I am a manager of a factory and I honestly believe that my employees dislike their work and will avoid it at all costs, then the survival of my firm depends upon my finding a way to get my workers, and keep them, motivated.  If that’s my situation, then rewarding and punishing people to put forth the effort needed to get the job done strikes me as an advisable course of action to take.  Sure, there are negative side effects to this approach, but our need to get work done around here justifies it.

However, if we, as teachers, embrace the ideas of Theory Y, then we will not rely on extrinsic motivators due to our belief that all students possess intrinsic motivation and due to our understanding of the dangers that extrinsic incentives present.  A belief in Theory Y means that we hold very different assumptions about our kids and will manage them accordingly.  Rather than emphasizing control, our paradigm, according to author Stephen Covey, will be one of “release.”

(A complete citation of Covey’s work and a full description of how his work connects to the work of teachers and students in our schools can be found in my Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8.)

Under this paradigm, we assume “that, given the freedom, opportunity, and support, people will bring out the highest and best within them and accomplish great things.” (another Covey quote)   We further assume that students can and will put forth substantial effort on their own in the service of objectives to which they are committed.


It is my firm belief that teachers and students will only achieve quality in classrooms and schools managed according to Theory Y assumptions.  In fact, it is impossible to implement any of the Eight Essentials I describe in my book in the type of coercive and controlling environment necessitated by a belief in Theory X.  


Intrinsic motivation is the fuel that powers the quality engine.  The pursuit of quality requires a tremendous amount of motivation, and the only true motivation comes from inside.  

Enterprise School District Superintendent Lee Jenkins once said that student enthusiasm is the number one asset that any school possesses and that it must be protected at all costs.  I believe intrinsic motivation to be just as important a commodity, worthy of similar attention, emphasis, and protection.

The good news is that we, as educators, have tremendous influence over our students’ level of intrinsic motivation.  There are certain teaching practices that nurture it and others that destroy it.  Our job is to eliminate the forces that destroy intrinsic motivation (e.g., fear, coercion, competition, blaming, ranking, and failure) and commit ourselves to promoting those that strengthen it.  I describe these nurturing forces in future blog posts.

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