Monday, July 23, 2012

Motivation to learn

Do Badges Kill Motivation, second in a series

Photo by Sloanpix
One of the things that got me delving into this topic is the idea that badges could ruin any intrinsic motivation students have. The idea of intrinsic motivation in school is worth exploring. Whether it's Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory or Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory, I have seen plenty of instances of intrinsic motivation in my career – when a student is completely absorbed in reading a book, when a photographer is shooting a series of portraits in our classroom studio, or when a student writer is putting the finishing touches on a story they care about – yes, I'm happy to report that I've personally seen quite a bit of intrinsic motivation in my time.

What usually happens next, however, is that the bell rings, class ends, and the student reluctantly moves on to the next classroom. I've also been on the other end, for example when student artists trudge into my class after leaving a canvas incomplete in their art class, or when musicians wander in fifteen minutes late because they lost track of time in their band class.

The problem with these examples, unfortunately, is that they don't happen often enough. Maybe other educational sites are full of students who are instrinsically motivated all-day, every day, but in my experience the majority of students are not in the zone the majority of the day.

Jere Brophy (in his book Motivating Students to Learn) argued that intrinsic motivation isn't a realistic model of student motivation anyway, since most educational activities are compulsory, at some point the performance will be evaluated, and often situated in very public settings. Instead Brophy argues that student motivation to learn should be the goal we strive for. He believed that intrinsic motivation refers primarily to the affective experience – enjoyment of the processes involved in engaging in the activity; in contrast, motivation to learn is is more of a cognitive response – attempts to make sense of information and master the skills and habits of mind that the activity develops. He wrote: "it is helpful to view motivation to learn as a schema – a network of connected insights, skills, values, and dispositions that enable students to understand what it means to engage in academic activities with the intention of of accomplishing their learning goals and with awareness of the strategies they use in attempting to do so."

Brophy felt that educators should capitalize on students' existing motivation (for example, the inquiry approach to writing), and also make the best of our opportunities to stimulate and socialize their motivation to learn.

He cites expectancy x value theory as a way of approaching motivation, and by extension I think it's a way to approach using badges in education. The expectancy x value model of motivation holds that the effort we're willing to expend on a task is a product of (a) the degree to which we expect to be able to perform the task successfully if we apply ourselves (and the rewards therein), and (b) the degree to which we value both the task and the rewards of that task. It's considered a product because no effort will be invested if one factor is missing entirely.

So what does this have to do with badges? I'll use the idea of "basic or foundational" badges to illustrate. On the one hand, if students recognize the value but don't feel capable of meeting the demands of the task, they're likely to do things to protect their ego (disassemble, in Brophy's words). If on the other hand they're confident in their abilities to do the task but don't value it, they're likely to just go through the motions (evade). Engagement happens when students see value in the task and are reasonably confident in their ability to succeed at that task.

I think I understand the expectancy part of the equation well enough. After all, most career educators are able to choose tasks that are within our students Zone of Proximal Development, but it's the value part of the equation that's a little trickier for me. How do we get students to value learning?

Brophy's 2008 article, "Developing Students Appreciation for What is Taught in Schools," speaks to that. More on that next time.

No comments: