What motivates us? Part I

A couple of weeks ago, we had a faculty meeting to discuss some of the changes that Senate House Bill 5 may bring about in our lives as teachers, including the possibility of moving from our current lock-step salary schedule raises to compensation based on merit pay. While nobody quite knows what would constitute “merit” yet, especially for a language teacher like me who doesn’t fall within the core curriculum, most people expect the merit of a teacher to be judged at least in part on the test scores of her students. My principal read us a passage from the book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel H. Pink that refuted some of the commonly held assumptions about pay and motivation. The passage he chose to read was interesting enough that one of our 21st century skill coaches decided to follow up with a book club invitation surrounding the text and I decided to check the book out from the library. So far I’ve read the introduction, chapter one, and part of chapter 2 and, while our book club discussions won’t begin until after spring break, I am already wanting to process some of what I’ve read. I hope to do so here on this blog to share what I’m learning with others who are interested in the topic of motivation, particularly as it pertains to the classroom.


Perhaps most surprising to me so far in my reading is how recent and still uncertain our understanding of what motivates us is. The first scientists to study motivation and record seemingly counterintuitive results were Harry F. Harlow, as recently as 1940, followed by Edward Deci twenty years later in the 1960s. Up until this time, we pretty much believed in two types of motivation: biological (the urge to satisfy hunger, thirst, or carnal urges) and extrinsic (rewards & punishments that the environment delivered for behaving in certain ways). We mostly thought that incentives would lead to an increase in motivation while punishments would lead to a decrease. We believed that the majority of motivations were external in nature and that human behavior was easily predictable and even controllable.

While this was true for some tasks and settings, it was fairly easy to prove it wasn’t always the case. Harlow planned an experiment to test the motivation of monkeys solving puzzles. He put the puzzles in the monkeys’ cages to get them familiar with them in advance of the experiment & planned to begin motivating them with raisins and other external rewards to solve the puzzles. But then something strange happened: the monkeys began to play with the puzzles on their own seemingly out of curiosity, and got pretty good at solving them. They seemed to actually like spending their time solving the puzzles, even with no reward. And, what was more, when Harlow began to reward the monkeys for their puzzle-solving, assuming they would perform even better, they did just the opposite: they made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently And thus, the idea of instrinsic motivation was born – Harlow uncovered what he called the third drive in which the performance of a task provided intrinsic reward – that is that the joy of the task is its own reward (p. 3-4).

Remember, prior to Harlow’s experiments & findings, scientists only operated under the assumption that there were only two drives that motivated behavior: biological motivation to meet basic human needs and extrinsic motivation provided by one’s environment. So, this idea that there was a third and seemingly illogical source of motivation was huge news to the scientific community and people largely ignored it until 20 years later when Edward Deci conducted experiments with human beings whose findings supported those of Harlow.

….there is much, much more (truly I’m barely scraping the tip of the iceberg of the introduction here) but this post is getting long, so I will leave off until next time when I share some ideas from chapter 1 of Drive.  In the first chapter of his book, Pink likens the evolution of our understanding of human motivation to the changing of computer operating systems over time to demonstrate why we are in dire need of an “upgrade” in how we seek to motivate individuals in educational and business settings.

Until next time…what are some things that are intrinsically motivating to you? Do you do anything just for the joy of it without receiving any sort of prize or reward? Why do you do it? Share in the comments!


About beckysearls

Married (DINK); High School Spanish Teacher; Lover of new technology (especially apple products!), Learner (of the life-long variety), Voracious Reader, Aspiring Writer, Tweeter, and now (or rather, a returning) Blogger!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What motivates us? Part I

  1. Bishop says:

    Interesting post, Becky. As someone who has only attended private school and teaches in private school, I find it interesting to read about the public school debate over the merit system. We’re just given raises when the school has enough money (IE not often).

    The idea of intrinsic motivation is an interesting one. I’m having a hard time coming up with something that I do because I am intrinsically motivated. I play video games, sure, but my favorite part is leveling up/increasing my stats or abilities. In fact, I even cataloged my games and check them off when I beat one, giving me a sense of satisfaction. Watching movies or television shows is the same way: I have a long list of shows or movies I “should watch” and mentally (and via Netflix) tick off when I “complete” one. Reading books is, in addition to the same mental checklist as movies and television shows, also tied to my career (should I teach this? Should it be on reading lists?).

    Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that I have added my own system of Achievements to life. Is it still intrinsic motivation if I’m motivating myself so extrinsically (and secretly hoping for life to go “ding” as I accumulate enough of these “achievements”)?

  2. beckysearls says:

    Good point, Dave. I think that in a way what you’re discussing IS intrinsic motivation. While its true that videogames & netflix queues provide us with a way to track our progress and perhaps feel more accomplished, at the end of the day, what’s your reason for playing or watching? Probably not to move up in the world or be more successful at life since one could argue that playing videogames & watching movies or TV shows don’t necessarily lead to a successful life. Really, you are engaging in those activities for the enjoyment that they provide you personally – that is, the activity is a reward in and of itself, you don’t carry out the activity to receive a separate award. The line is pretty close though. Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations are not so black and white after all, I suppose.

    By the way, I have enjoyed your blog posts so far too! Keep posting!!

  3. Pingback: Back to School 2010-2011: Brainstorm | A Mishmash of Me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s