Saturday, 14 May 2011 21:50

Challenge: The 4th Nurturing Force of Intrinsic Motivation

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In this blog post I continue describing the forces that nurture intrinsic motivation.  Instead of trying to gain temporary obedience from our students through the use of rewards and punishments, these forces help us in our attempts to win our students’ hearts and minds and enlist a genuine commitment to the worthwhile aims and objectives we are trying to promote in our classrooms.



Focusing on and emphasizing these forces helps teachers create an engaging, productive classroom environment that brings out the best in students.  For teachers who may be a bit nervous about the prospect of managing a group of children without relying on rewards and punishments, these forces offer a far more powerful, far more genuine alternative to traditional classroom management approaches that are rooted in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and depend on extrinsic motivation.

These forces work synergistically to create an environment where quality can flourish.  No extrinsic motivators, either alone or in combination, can come close to producing such results.  No student has ever been rewarded or punished into excellence.  True success comes only when we bring out the very best in our students.  And in order for us to bring the best out of our students, we must appeal to the best in them.  These forces do just that.  

In addition to promoting student desire to engage in specific tasks, these forces benefit a classroom more generally.  Collectively, they build morale and enthusiasm for learning, enhance self-esteem, deepen the sense of connection individuals feel to the classroom and to one another, and increase student willingness to put forth sustained effort.

Nurturing Force #4: Challenge

Human beings are intrinsically motivated to seek out challenging activities.  The degree of challenge, though, must be appropriate.  We have little desire to engage in tasks that are too simple because they offer no stimulation.  We also have little desire to engage in tasks that are too difficult because we wish to avoid the discouragement.  Situations of optimal challenge bring out the best in us; they motivate us to the fullest.  If you think about the times in your life when your motivation to complete a task was at its highest, it was probably because the task was neither too difficult nor too easy for you, but appropriately challenging.

If we think about the students in our schools who seem to have lost their intrinsic motivation to learn, the chances are good that we’re focusing on those who fall into two distinct categories.    The first consists of extremely bright students who find school work too easy, and the other consists of struggling learners who are overwhelmed by the daily demands of their classroom.  In each case, it makes sense that these children would lack motivation because each morning they enter school knowing that the work they are asked to complete does not provide the level of challenge they require.  

As teachers, we can bring out the best in our students and nurture their intrinsic motivation by ensuring that the work we ask them to complete is optimally challenging.  This task, however, can be daunting for us since our job involves providing optimal challenge for so many students, of whom no two are alike.  Because no teacher can hope to know his or her students better than they know themselves, one great way to create situations of optimal challenge is to encourage students to make choices about what and how they learn.

This whole issue of optimal challenge directly connects to the topic of differentiated instruction.  Though much has been written about this topic in recent years, the basic concept of differentiated instruction is a simple one.  The best definition I have ever heard came during the Elementary Physical Education Workshop held at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo every summer.  


Coach John Thomson began his presentation one day by holding up a jump rope parallel to the ground, waist high.  He said that if we asked students to jump over the rope at that height, the task would be too difficult for many students, too easy for some, and just right for others.  Then, he turned the rope diagonally.  Now, he claimed, if we asked children to jump over the rope, everyone could be successful because there were more options, more entry points, more spots where students would be optimally challenged.  Thomson’s “slanty rope principle” remains the best introduction to differentiated instruction I have ever learned.


In the classroom, with standards-based instruction, I often view each standard as the jump rope at Thomson’s waist.  For some children a given standard offers an appropriate challenge.  For some it doesn’t pose enough of a challenge, and for others it poses too much of a challenge.  The purpose of differentiated instruction is to ensure that we are meeting the needs of children in all three situations.  In other words, we are attempting to empower everyone to meet the standard and encouraging those capable of exceeding it to do so.  If we can find a way to do that (whether it’s by providing extension or open-ended activities for students who have already met the standard or by providing extra support, a modified activity, or a different entry point for students who may initially struggle to meet the standard), we help keep our students motivated and keep them from becoming bored or discouraged.

New Blog Posts appear every weekend of the school year.

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