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.