What If We Differentiated Motivation?

Recently, I finished the first draft on a book about Flow Theory and student engagement. For years, I’ve been intrigued by the research on human motivation. And yet, for all the nuance in the studies, there’s still this nagging feeling that we are looking for universals and missing the particulars. This leaves me with a lingering question:

Should we be differentiating motivation?

I mention this because I have fought for choice and agency in student projects and in assessment. I have assumed that students have different topics, interests, and themes that excite them. And yet, when it comes to motivation, I have remained firmly entrenched in the “intrinsic motivation works best” side.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to doubt that motivation is quite so universal. I think there are trends that work (like the elements that enable someone to hit a state of flow) and I can see there are universal human drives (like choice theory’s four main psychological needs articulated by William Glasser). However, it gets a little more muddled once you move into the particulars.

Case in point: people say that competition is bad, that it leads to a lack of cooperation. And yet, I’ve known people who are highly driven by competition and in the midst of it, they remain cooperative. They remain ethical. Their closest friends are also their greatest competition. I don’t get it. It’s not me at all, but that’s not the point. Competition works for them.

Or consider choice. Some people thrive in an atmosphere of choice. For other people, it quickly becomes overwhelming and they need a few fewer choices to lessen the cognitive load so that they can focus on the things they care the most about. Some people do well in a highly structured environment while it crushes the agency of others.

What if we differentiated motivation instead of looking for one solution that works for every student? We’ve seen how differentiated teaching, assessment, and even discipline work for our students. But what about personalizing motivation? Maybe it’s time we recognize that once you get past the universals, each person is far more complex than it first appears. Our drives and desires and motivations are complex and individual.

I don’t think the answer is a new Differentiated Motivational System. The only answer is a relationship of trust. When that happens, we can figure out what works for each student.

9 thoughts on “What If We Differentiated Motivation?

  1. This is very helpful John. I agree with you, motivation is differentiated. We are often overwhelmed by movements searching for the magic bullet that will solve one educational problem or another. It is important to keep our understanding of the varied types of problems confronting us throughout life. Some are simple, others complex, and too many extreme. As you point out, there is no way to parse out a simple motivator for learning, we gone know all the factors in motivation. We don't know all the correct responses to the unmotivated. We function by relying on generalizations, yet we must keep in our minds that each person represents a unique extreme problem. I have 21 children to motivate, so I am challenged to arrive at 21 subtly, or dramatically different responses. This is why we persist in saying that a personal relationship between teacher, student, and their family is critical to learning.

  2. Agreed! This is something that has taken my 8 years in the classroom to figure out. Just this past year I took a position as Dean of Students for a virtual school. Motivating and trying to keep students engaged can be challenging! I stumbled upon this concept by pay close attention to my students. I discovered that they wanted incentives. So I gave them incentives! We play "Let's Make a Deal" where students propose a goal to reach by a certain day or date and I offer different incentives such as a movie day, ice cream sundaes, Xbox tournaments, using their smart phones, coupons for extra credit, etc. Guess what? IT WORKS!! Production has increased, student creativity is coming out with their proposals, and they are taking ownership of their education! What an amazing thing to be part of! I love my career @CapacVirtual !

  3. This! I would add to your final statement that not only do you need to have a trusted relationship to each student, you need to have a trusted relationship to the group as a whole and even to sub groups within the whole. Learning community relationships are complex systems with a lot of fluidity, randomness, and constantly changing external factors. Throw in there that learning is inherently a vulnerable place for learners and you have a lot going on.

  4. Perhaps it's the generalities that kill us: painting anything as all good or bad destroys the essence of a concept. Great post, and gave me a lot to think about. I'm constantly striving to help students figure out what makes them get in that zone, and then try to apply it when it feels like it's failing them.

  5. Yes! I think you are on to something and educators need to unleash the creativity in their students. The other day I gave my students an assignment to play a flash card game to help reinforce vocabulary . As I was monitoring the activity I came across two students who were not playing the game but were acting out the words. So I asked them why they chose not to play and they said because actin it out helps them learn. I then left them to their self created activity and began to to reflect about what had just happened. It's not the how…it's the end result… The learning!

  6. Hello John, I find myself resonating and wondering with your thoughtful post. I can see how the 'universals' work as a useful beginning framework. For example, self-efficacy is a motivating/de-motivating factor for all students, but the factors that determine one's sense of self-efficacy are wide-ranging and complex, be them the grades, class dynamics, or the social factors beyond the classroom.
    When I struggle to differentiate motivation, I realize that it is because I lack that interpersonal connection with individual students – exactly as what you call, a "relationship of trust".
    This is my first time visiting your blog, and it's a pleasure read! I'm curious and interested to learn more about your Flow Theory and explore other resources. Thank you, John!

  7. I find the idea of differentiating motivation to be intriguing and a bit like something I should have considered before. I greatly enjoy utilizing the workshop model in my classroom, which allows students to have a great deal of choice in their reading and writing. I have not really considered how to motivate them in ways that appeal to them as individuals. I tend to mix up the motivation by sometimes utilizing the students' natural competitive natures and sometimes urging them to find satisfaction in a job well done, and not worry about how others did. In retrospect I am only effectively motivating some of my students at any one time. The idea of focusing more on deepening relationships and truly finding out what makes students tick could provide some amazing opportunities for incredible learning adventures. I am looking forward to having interesting motivation discussions with my students.

  8. I agree with your idea on differentiating motivation just like how we differentiate teaching, assessments, and even discipline. Motivating and keeping students engaged can be challenging especially in the primary grades. Teachers often provide incentives, prizes, stickers, points, tickets, etc. as extrinsic motivation to get their students excited and willing to learn. Author Dan Pink of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us states there are three parts to intrinsic motivation; Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery. 1) Empower the need for autonomy to increase intrinsic motivation so students are able to create their own ways to share their learning. 2) Set a purpose for learning so students can make contributions to their learning. 3) Encourage students to have a desire for mastery or a feeling of making progress. Everyone has a different “drive” that motivates him or her in different ways. I think that both teachers and students possess this drive and need opportunities to self-direct, to work towards their personal mastery goals, and understand the connection of their work to a larger purpose. We must understand that each of our students have a different drive and give them opportunities to make meaningful connections.

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