Understanding Motivation

by Vinay

Yesterday, I outlined my philosophy on education and summarized it through the formula of motivation + relevance = engagement, which results in improved outcomes. Doing so provides me with a framework upon which I can analyze a variety of topics, including emerging educational technologies, teaching styles and so forth.

First, it is critical to understand each of the variables in the formula in greater depth. In today’s post I will dig deeper into motivation.

We begin with a synopsis

On Monday night, I went and saw Black Swan, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Natalie Portman. The story focuses on an ambitious ballerina (played by Portman) in the New York City Ballet company who has been awarded the lead in the upc0ming production of Swan Lake.

For Portman’s character, ballet is the only thing that matters in her life. Her drive to be the best consumes her psyche throughout the entirety of the film and her obsession with perfection manifests in self-destructive ways, which she must deal with throughout the film.

Aronofsky is no stranger to the darker side of the human condition — one only needs to see Pi or Requiem for a Dream to appreciate his willingness to reach humanity’s edges. Black Swan gives us a window into a life where one’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are pushed to the brink. Portman’s obsession with being the best on stage comes from deep inside her core, an insatiable need to achieve perfection. The movie compounds this drive through the introduction of a rival ballerina, played by Mila Kunis, who Portman believes is a threat to her status as Swan Queen. The introduction of competition here only drives Portman’s character even further towards the brink.

Can we call that a good problem?

Ironically, the degree of motivation that Black Swan depicts is the opposite of what concerns most educators. Our challenge is to figure out how to motivate those students that exude minimal effort and fail to respond to the various incentives we put forth to try to stimulate motivation. But to make it more challenging, we try to do so without losing the momentum of the other motivated students.

Nevertheless, the movie does address one issue that is critical: one needs to understand the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives, to avoid unwanted outcomes. Extrinsic incentives like grades seem to be falling out of favor. Many have argued that while easier to enforce and monitor, extrinsic factors may not result in desired outcomes. Over at TechIntersect, Bill Genereux writes about the need to focus intrinsic incentives in order to achieve “authentic learning.”

One school in San Diego is building a culture of college-going at a very young age. In doing so, the school is engaging the intrinsic motivations of students early on and hope they “will aspire to a lifelong path toward higher education and deeper learning that ends with a degree.” The same article in EdWeek provides additional examples of schools trying to generate intrinsic motivation by having students set their eyes on college at a young age.

Science has also begun to question the role of extrinsic incentives, in particular the book Drive by Daniel Pink, for any task that is not rudimentary. In an excellent animation by the British RSA, Pink explains the most recent findings regarding economic incentives in the workplace:

So it would seem then that the role of extrinsic factors are limited and could be counterproductive when combined with strong intrinsic incentives.

Not so fast, lets compete on this

But this conclusion would be too extreme. Extrinsic incentives can still play a substantially positive role in encouraging desired outcomes. First, there are many aspects of education that still fall under the rudimentary category, as described by Pink. One that immediately comes to mind is attendance. Here incorporating competition could encourage students to show up more often than they otherwise would. Granted once present, there is no guarantee that they will pay attention, but the extrinsic incentive still serves a purpose.

Competition is nothing new, but recently in the technology world it has been re-purposed by the buzzword game dynamics, or the concept of building point systems or other features traditionally virtual features to operate in the real world. Companies like Foursquare with their badge system have capitalized on this concept. At the heart of these offerings is the truism that human beings are inherently competitive animals. The beauty of such competitive structures is that when applied to learning they can encourage learning surreptitiously, as students will compete to win and learn along the way. While inside of the game, no additional incentives are needed, as the rules of game reinforce the motivation autonomously. Seth Priebatsch, founder of SCVNGR, is trying to create a platform which would  allow game dynamics to be applied anywhere. Moreover, all of these new technologies also play into the social desires of humans, allowing them to ‘show off’ their accomplishments to others.

Yet extrinsic incentives also suffer from a major shortcoming, especially when applied to education — once the game is over, the incentives vanish. It is unclear whether there are long-term changes in behavior or outcomes when relying solely on extrinsic incentives. The ongoing debate over “cash for grades” is an example of this.

There is a time and place

But intrinsic incentives also have challenges, in particular they take a very long-time to work, and require a constant monitoring and reinforcement to take hold permanently. Reminding a child once that learning is the path to college is not enough, this belief must be cultivated with care and attention day in and day out. For this reason there must be a healthy marriage between both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives in education. Maybe one way to envision this is to view it as a relay, where extrinsic incentives can take the first leg for a given topic and once certain habits or beliefs have been formed they will hand the student off to a more intrinsic approach to learning. The path is unclear for now, but one thing that is certain is that effective learning will require that both play a role together.