Sunday, July 11, 2010

Intrinsic Motivation and SBG: Soulmates or Heading for Divorce Court?

So I was reading a ThinkThankThunk blog the other day, when a comment Shawn made really defined something I’ve been struggling with of late: “When you make things worth points, it becomes about the points, not the learning, for some kids.” I read Dan Pink’s Drive this spring. No one has been able to knock me off of my soapbox since. I talk about intrisinic motivation at every opportunity and have picked up every Alfie Kohn book I can find. If you aren’t familiar with the book, watch this video or Dan’s TED talk to get a brief overview. The basic assertion is that an over-emphasis on extrinsic motivation is counterproductive to drive, actually undermining the innate motivation all humans have toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
As a result of my new found religious zeal, I find myself often in conflict with the direction I see my school and local educational community pursuing. Behavior modification strategies that rely constantly on carrots and sticks seems to be the norm, and the icing on this proverbially unhealthy cake are the constant rewards and prizes that my school gives students showing improvement on benchmark tests (Ipods, Nintendos, flat-screen TVs). There has been much in the popular media of late (i.e. this recent Time magazine article) about research into the effectiveness of this tactic. I try to keep an open-mind when I read this stuff, but really fear we are heading in the wrong direction with regard to long-term motivation.
I want to create a classroom environment that elicits what I believe to be the more powerful effect of intrinsic motivation. Allow students autonomy in pursuit of academic goals. Create an environment where they can achieve and feel a sense of mastery. Connect our learning activities to a larger purpose. This is where I believe education should be heading. This is why I believe in educational experiences that are grounded in some larger context: application, interdisciplinary, real-world, and whatever other edu-buzz word comes to mind. It’s also why I believe a certain level of differentiation is a must for students to be appropriately met at their zone of proximal development to help achieve. It is often difficult to create a classroom like this in an educational environment that is so artificially constructed, but that is my mission.
Which brings me to SBG…the buzz word which probably elicited you clicking on this blog in the first place, right? I drank the sbg kool-aid because I think it is the best means for me to bridge the gap between where we are now in education and where I believe we should be going. I do see this approach as creating a situation where students are empowered and given autonomy to pursue educational goals (although, admittedly, they don’t have autonomy over the learning targets at this point). I also believe it provides a profound opportunity for mastery achievement when skills are laid out so clearly and assessments are formative in nature. I’m excited to see how this practice aligns with my values and allows me to minimize a bit of the cognitive dissonance I feel each time I attempt to my job description with my personal philosophical zeal. BUT…here comes my new conflict…
When I was discussing implementation of SBG with my partner teacher and thinking about creating a bunch of mini-assessments to have already on hand as a resource for kids wanting to reassess, he expressed concern that we were shifting to an overemphasis on grades. He said, “Is our class only about grades? “Kids come in just to get the grade, cram to reassess, etc.” That conversation has been eating at me ever since. Philosophically, I am not even sure I believe in grades at all – being the epitome of a meaningless extrinsic reward. And yet, in an effort to abandon the traditional grading system that I abhor, am I inadvertently creating a system that overemphasizes grades. Sure, the grades are different…they look different…they are about mastery rather than points and all that…but is the effect going to be a class that has this new grading system as its central defining character. If so, won’t that undermine the very purpose I am aiming for.
So, this blog has no answers. Just a rambling attempt to put some words to this conflict: Does SBG result in an overemphasis on external feedback that will ultimately undermine intrinsic motivation? Or does it align perfectly with our innate needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Your thoughts…


  1. Jami - you said, "I drank the sbg kool-aid because I think it is the best means for me to bridge the gap between where we are now in education and where I believe we should be going" but you also asked if the system relies on an overemphasis on external feedback. 
I have not read Dan Pink's book yet, but I have heard him talk. I think intrinsic motivation is a great thing - we all want our students to possess a deeper sense of it, but we all know it doesn't happen overnight. Standards-based grading provides many more opportunities for students to utilize and practice this type of motivation. Even before a grade is recorded, a student can now say to him/herself, "wow, I didn't get that stuff. I really need to learn more about it for next time." In the old system, this wasn't even a possibility! 
Similarly, before ever recording a test score into the grade book, I give students a non-graded quiz. They receive feedback from me as well as their peers on specifics to improve their learning without the evaluative aspect of numbers. Again, an opportunity to leverage a little bit of self-motivation. Shawn's system relies on numbers and the grade book to provide the incentive for students to re-assess. These are just two different ways of utilizing standards-based grading.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I am hoping it is exactly the bridge we need, but am fearful that my implementation of it isn't going to use its potential to its fullest. I guess that I find MYSELF focusing on the grading component as I devise how I am going to set things up and that is what scares me.
    I'll be posting tons of questions as the new school year gets under way. :)
    Do you think that part of the reason that intrinsic motivation "doesn't happen overnight" when it is theoretically the natural course of things is because the previous 9+ years in our school system have undermined it?

  3. Jami, you said, "Do you think that part of the reason that intrinsic motivation "doesn't happen overnight" when it is theoretically the natural course of things is because the previous 9+ years in our school system have undermined it?"

    My answer...yes and no.

    Yes - Even after implementing SBG in your math class, your students will most likely still be exposed to the "points game" in the rest of their classes. If you teach in an 8 period day, students will be receiving one message from you "learning is most important" and receiving a different message from seven other teachers "point accumulation is most important." With that in mind, I still believe it's a big step forward. Students may begin pushing your colleagues to change. It will definitely provide a conversation piece between you and your colleagues. Unless grades magically disappear in your building, the step you're making is one in the right direction both for your math students' sake as well as for the sake of your local context. The culture of your own classroom will change, that's for sure.

    No - Until we ourselves as teachers become more intrinsically motivated, how can we expect our students to follow suit? We continue to do some things in our lives for external rewards. It could be taking tickets at a football game for pay. It could be receiving a stipend for taking a class we otherwise wouldn't have made time for in our schedule. It could be showing up to work early just so the principal will see us walk in next to him or her drinking coffee. You can probably name countless other examples or even colleagues who just do the bare minimum to collect a pay check. We're all on a motivation journey, so doesn't it make sense that our students would be, too?

    Just my two cents.

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