Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Motivation, the Elusive Drive

“Come on, you can do it!”

They were wrong.

In my youth I played a sport that makes up a chunk of many-a-child’s early athletic endeavors. My father was passionate about it. My older brother was MVP of his high school team. And I…just didn’t get it. In the final game of my final year of eligibility, by some fluke of fate, I managed two significant plays. In an entire season of mediocrity those two plays were what stayed in the minds of the coaches, and I was named to the all-star team. The “honor” meant practicing beyond the season’s end and playing games against all-star teams from other locales.

My father was proud. My older brother thought, for the first time, that I might follow in his footsteps. I was miserable. Miserable and unmotivated. Somehow I maintained a pulse despite a lack of heart for the game; I was merely a body filling a position.

My coach and teammates yelled endless go-get-‘em, show-’em-what-you’ve-got’s to no avail. I didn’t get the sport. Never did. It was meaningless to me, and I was definitely the team’s weakest link. Without motivation, I remained in my mediocrity, not interested in learning how to improve. This is the only time I can remember my parents allowing me to quit something I had started, and I’m sure their allowance immediately improved the team.

An Elusive Drive
Motivation is elusive. In part because motivation is idiosyncratic. We all assign different levels of significance and meaning to different things. What captivated my father and brother’s interests seemed like only a time-filler to me. Part of discovering ourselves is finding those things that spur us to action—meaningful, intentionally chosen action. When we find these captivating pursuits, our inner drive kicks in and we act with purpose, passion, and even inspiration.

Students are individuals. What motivates one may not motivate another, which is why a blanket approach, be it “sticks” or “carrots,” rarely works, especially long term. I once used a reading motivational program initiated by a national restaurant chain. I’d set monthly goals for students and if they achieved them they received a certificate to use at the restaurant. For a month or two, I’d have 80%+ of my students achieve the goal. Then the achievement rate took a dip, followed by another and another, until only a few students were achieving the monthly goals. I was trying to motivate individuals with a one-size-fits-all approach, and my use of extrinsic motivation probably negatively influenced any intrinsic motivation some of my students had for reading.

One Hot Potato

Motivation seems to be our controversy of the moment. On one “side” we have famous authors and speakers suggesting that extrinsic motivation is wasted energy. On the other, we have researchers paying students for various academic-related achievements. We can cite research that supports both perspectives, which leaves us arguing over philosophical stances and pragmatic solutions.

Let’s step away from the shouting for a moment and consider principles that can guide our thinking about motivation and learning.

Extrinsic Motivation: Be Specific in the Short-term
Focusing attention on a post-task reward can promote action. For example, I love Boston Cream Pie (which isn’t a pie at all), but it’s not a common dessert here in Alabama where banana pudding is more the norm. Once in a while the urge to taste the delicious combination of cake, cream, and dark chocolate moves my attention and action to the kitchen. I bake the dessert so I can eat the dessert. The reward at the end of the task moves me and makes me move. I don’t enjoy the process of baking enough to make Boston Cream Pie every day, every week, or even every month. But occasionally, the reward at the end is enough to make me don a baker’s cap (at least figuratively).

This example illustrates some important principles for using extrinsic motivation. First, extrinsic motivation is best used for short-term, measurable tasks. Research suggests that attempts at using extrinsic motivation long-term actually end up undermining motivation. An initial burst of activity is typically followed by decreased drive and achievement. Daniel Pink suggests using extrinsic motivation only when there is no intrinsic motivation that may be undermined.1

Short-term extrinsic motivation can be effective if the task is concrete and measurable. For example, Roland Fryer Jr.’s controversial research found that paying students for high test scores or good grades was far less effective than paying students for each book they read.2 The reason: students knew how to achieve the reward for reading a book but did not
necessarily know what to do to raise their test scores or grades. For extrinsic motivation to be effective, the targeted action needs to be specific and the individual needs to know exactly how to accomplish the desired goal.

Daniel Pink describes such tasks as those that “require following a prescribed set of rules to a specific end.”3 The message: offering extrinsic motivation for vague concepts, such as good behavior or more effort, is unlikely to succeed. Using extrinsic motivation for specific, concrete tasks, such as mowing the lawn or reading a book, can be effective, but probably only in the short-term.

That does not mean that short-term extrinsic motivation cannot lead to long-term changes in behavior. If the motivation sustains a change long enough, the individual may develop new habits that persist beyond the external reward. For example, a student offered a reward for a specific behavior, such as returning an item to its appropriate place of storage after use, may develop the habit of putting the item back after each use. Pink warns, however, that offering the extrinsic motivation long term often leads to resentment as the “motivatee” feels manipulated by the one offering the reward. Short-term, specific, and measurable can make extrinsic motivation work without most negative side-effects.

Intrinsic Motivation: Setting the Stage

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a recipe for igniting intrinsic motivation—”Do X and all your students will be passionate about learning.” Yeah, that would be great. We can dream, but the reality is that intrinsic motivation is impossible to generate for someone else. However, we can create environments where intrinsic motivation is more likely to flourish.

First, create conditions in which students experience competence. Humans like to feel capable of meeting challenges, whether it’s working a formula correctly or running a mile. We like to feel like we can be successful, even when it takes work. How do we create these conditions in our classrooms? One of the most powerful modifications a teacher can make is increasing the amount of instructive feedback given to students while they are working on a task. Formative assessment combined with instructive feedback is the heart of effective teaching. As a teacher moves throughout the classroom observing students at work and offering additional challenge and redirection as necessary, students gain confidence in their abilities to be successful. Why? Because someone is there to point the way. It’s that simple. When we are working to learn something new, having someone who knows how to do what we’re trying to learn and who is willing to offer feedback and guidance kicks our intrinsic motivation into gear.

Second, establish an environment that communicates autonomy. Students like to feel like they have some control over their actions. (Teachers do too, by the way!) If everything in a classroom is so structured that students never have options, intrinsic motivation will wither. The choices can be as simple as either A or B. The point is not to provide students with a myriad of options, but to make sure that giving students choices is a regular part of the classroom. Don’t confuse autonomy with independence. It’s not that students want to be left alone to achieve for themselves but that they want to feel like they have some say in how they learn and demonstrate their learning. In fact, given as an option, many students will choose to work collaboratively with others, recognizing that such interdependence has many potential benefits.

Third, provide appropriate challenge for students. Many times increasing the challenge means doing less as teachers. We have a tendency to think and act as though giving students all the new material nicely organized and tied up is the best way for them to get it. After all, putting it all together worked for us as we interacted with the material. That, right there, is the key: we accepted the challenge of processing the material and gained deeper understanding of it as a result. Students need to go through a similar process—to take on the challenge of sorting the new material.

Research supports this conclusion. A study that has been replicated featured two groups both
given the text passage to read. For one group, the text was preceded by an outline that had the same organization as the text. In other words, the researcher, or teacher, communicated that this was the way the ideas should be organized. For the second group, the text was preceded by an outline having a different organization from the text. The researchers then gave two different tests to both groups. The first test was simply to recall the text passage. In other words, it measured superficial learning of the text. In this first test, the group that had received the outline that matched the text had the better scores.

However, when the researchers tested deep learning by testing each group’s ability to use ideas from the text to engage in creative problem-solving, the second group, the group that had been given an outline that differed from the organization of the text passage, significantly outperformed the other group.

Why did the results differ for the two groups? Here’s the researcher’s explanation: “The
efforts that participants in the second group made to relate the outline to the text reduced their ability to recall the text but increased their understanding of it. This increased understanding meant that they were better placed than participants in the first group to generalize or transfer their knowledge to the creative problems.” The extra challenge of restructuring the outline to match the text better equipped them to transfer their learning or to act with intention in using the new material.4

Dr. Judy WIllis recently presented valuable insights regarding the brain and challenge. When, as students, our brains are not challenged we become bored easily, and boredom is actually a form of stress. When stressed, the regions of the brain associated with “fight, flight, or freeze” become active, generating behaviors often associated with a variety of disorders, including ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and others. As a neurologist, Dr. Willis began to question the high percentage of children she saw who
supposedly had indicators of these disorders. Knowing the numbers seemed far too high, Dr. Willis began to visit classrooms and noticed that, for many students, the questionable behaviors occurred when the child was either unchallenged or feeling incompetent in relation to the challenge.5 Appropriate challenge avoids the extremes that can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

Fourth, help students perceive progress. I love the Nike+ system used with my mp3 player to track my runs. After each run, I can see my progress in relation to personal goals, established standards, previous runs, and much more. I have a visual representation of my progress. Researchers often refer to this as something like the “gamer effect,” gamer being the player of video games. When you play a video game and reach the end of a challenge, you move on to the next level. You always know where you are in relation to the game’s ultimate challenge and conclusion. You can “see” progress.

Would it be possible to help students see their own progress? If we have a series of skills that ultimately enable students to complete some task or reach some answer—could we provide them with a chart that shows the progression? Could they check off “levels” as they master the sub-skills? Think, “How can I represent the learning in a way that students will be able to see progress?”

Finally, help students discover meaning in their learning.
…meaning is motivational. Because the brain constantly strives to make sense of the sensory data our experiences provide, finding meaning triggers the brain’s reward system and increases the likelihood of our retaining the information. “The brain’s determination of what is meaningful and what is not is reflected not only in the initial perceptual processes but also in the conscious processing of information,” claims Patricia Wolfe. “Information that fits into or adds to an existing network has a much better chance of storage than information that doesn’t.”6
Meaning emerges as students blend new learning with past experience (elaboration) and as I see its relevance to their current world (intention). By helping students see the relationship between new learning and their past and present experiences, we can make our instruction conducive to intrinsic motivation.

Remember, there is no magic formula for generating intrinsic motivation or guarantee that even with all these conditions in place that it will flourish. This, however, gives a focus, a place to put our energies so that intrinsic motivation is possible.

In conclusion, let’s consider one more major influence on intrinsic motivation: the teacher’s passion (or lack of it) for the subject matter being taught. We have the responsibility of learning to like everything we teach so that our attitude toward it is consistently upbeat and positive. Many of us likely became teachers because of a dynamic teacher in our past. We need to be that dynamic teacher in our classrooms.

I’d like to pay you $5.00 for reading this entire article, but I wouldn’t want to undermine any intrinsic motivation you may have for implementing its ideas. My continued curiosity about the topic led me to write it—i.e., I didn’t write it for pay! Hopefully it’s generated some ideas worth considering. Applying new learning does have its own rewards!

And who knows? With enough intrinsic motivation you might earn, deserve, and enjoy a post on the all-star team!

  1. Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
  2. Ripley, A., “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” Time, April 8, 2010.
  3. Pink, 62.
  4. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W., & Anderson, M.C., Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009) 113-135.
  5. Willis, J., “Teaching Students How They Can Change Their Intelligence by Teaching Them a Brain Owner’s Manual,” presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, 2010).
  6. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 46-47.
  • ‘Free Hey Now You’re An All Star+Creative+Commons‘
  • ‘Murphy‘
  • ‘goodbye‘

Monday, April 12, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 2

Time. Is there a greater challenge for educators? It seems like instructional time is often the target of well-meaning but time-devouring programs. Assemblies, pep rallies, fund-raising motivational events, and those intercom announcements eat precious minutes, and these are on top of an already bloated curriculum. As a result, we tend to eliminate anything that has a whiff of being extraneous.

One major casualty: creative thinking. However, as I discussed in Part 1, for the brain creative thinking is not just the predecessor to producing art. It is a means of deepening understanding. In other words, creative thinking is a cognitive gateway to deeper, more meaningful learning. Let’s examine how learning can spark creative thinking, which can lead to deeper learning.

Learning involves four “core processes,” two of which are comprehension and elaboration. If learning proceeds in a straightforward fashion—experience→comprehension→elaboration→application—it can bypass opportunities for creative thinking. This is unfortunate because learning can spark creative thinking:
The resulting understanding prompts a creative curve. The mind says, “Wait a minute! Let’s explore that again, but this time from a different perspective, or with a different reference point, or in multiple dimensions, or by combining it with _____.” Neuroscientist and writer Gregory Berns describes this as “reverse perception.” Creative thinking, claims Berns, “comes from using the same neural circuits used to perceive natural objects,” but in reverse. Instead of perceiving what is and acting on it, the mind seeks what else could be. The individual re-explores the new data, returning to comprehension to disorganize, relabel, and re-sort the data in a different way. This difference may be in perspective, in scale, in dimension, or in any ways that alter initial thinking about the data. For example, the creative individual may engage a creative tool (e.g., drawing an analogy) or explore representational variety (e.g., a multiple intelligences approach, such as representing verbal data in a musical or spatial form).1
This figure shows the “creative curve.”
When given the opportunity to re-explore understandings, the brain often engages in re-comprehension, the sorting of critical details, and re-elaboration, the recognition of new patterns. These new patterns may be new, unique, creative. As the individual examines these new patterns, methods of expressing them may come to mind. These possible expressions are then examined for potential, and if deemed effective, the individual may proceed to producing a creative product. At this point the individual’s skills in the chosen medium come into play—i.e., an experienced and capable painter will likely produce work of a higher quality than the novice. However, both beginner and master benefit from the thinking preceding the expression because it’s the thinking that deepens understanding of the original topic.

Note that learning and creative thinking are actually overlapping processes. Both engage (re-)comprehension and (re-)elaboration, and as a result, both have the potential to deepen understanding. If deep learning of subject matter is the goal, creative thinking can help achieve it. Also note that creative thinking requires time and space. If learning proceeds too efficiently, opportunities for creative thinking are lost. Challenging students to revisit subject matter, reorganize its details in different schemes, and explore those reorganizations for new patterns can initiate creative insights. Those insights contribute to deeper learning. When creative thinking leads to creative products, another opportunity for deepening learning is generated:
…creative works can deepen learning in the classroom. For example, Erica, a middle school teacher, has her students develop a series of symbols to summarize a work of literature. For example, one student summarizes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in a series of three symbols: a tightly clenched hand, that same hand with three different colored streaks of light surrounding it and a large timepiece in the background, and finally an open hand extending forward. The results become new data for the other students. As they examine the symbols, the students reprocess the details of the literature, consider the connection between the story and the symbol, and make a decision regarding the symbol’s effectiveness. This reprocessing—interacting with the symbols as if they were ‘another person’—mirrors learning’s core processes, engaging recall and thought about the original stimulus. This rethinking fosters deeper learning of the subject matter.2
There are also implications for our teaching. Want to be creative in your instructional design? Your brain needs the time and space to explore the subject matter—to reorganize it, search for new patterns, and apply the resulting insights to teaching plans. Unfortunately this time and space is probably the biggest challenge to our teaching more creatively. One way I deal with this is to look ahead and identify the major upcoming instructional units. This look ahead creates a space between what I’m currently teaching and what I will be teaching and gives my mind time to explore the subject matter in ways that enable creative thinking.

Getting away from my normal work space seems to help. Many of my creative ideas find me during morning runs. Actually, research suggests such a change of scenery increases the likelihood of creative thinking:
Sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog the perceptual system out of familiar categories. This may be one reason why restaurants figure so prominently as sites of perceptual breakthroughs...When confronted with places never seen before, the brain must create new categories. It is in this process that the brain jumbles around old ideas with new images to create new syntheses.3
Creative thinking and learning are complementary processes. Learning enables creative thinking, and creative thinking deepens learning. This is why my target-based organization of thinking does not include a separate ring devoted to creative thinking. I see creative thinking as a type of learning. As such, teaching students to think creatively is critical if we seek to develop self-directed learners. Add skill in expression, such as the methods and approaches taught via the arts, and we’ll be graduating creative thinkers with the skills to engage the world through art—or at least bring artful expression to their lives and work.

  1. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 231-232.
  2. Ibid., 234-235.
  3. Berns, G., Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008), 33.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 1

Sirens seize our attention. They scream, “Crisis!” and we scan the horizon or media streams to secure the details.

Despite their obvious function, sirens do little to actually address the emergencies they signal. After awareness is achieved, sirens fall silent while those charged with solving problems shift into high gear. The perp is pursued, the fire is fought, the EMT's and ambulance crew care for the injured. It’s these individuals on the ground who address whatever triggered the siren’s screech across the airwaves.

Creativity has become the target of many sirens, pundits who find purpose in critiquing current educational practices. Some, such as Sir Ken Robinson, go so far as accusing education of killing students’ creativity. (By the way, this is not a criticism of Mr. Robinson. I appreciate his thinking, share his talks with others, and have read all of his books!) These sirens have served a purpose: educators are aware of and talking about the need to develop students’ creative capacities. However, many of us are not shifting into high gear to address this problem because we have not been equipped to do so. Returning to the analogy, if I am the first on an accident scene I’ll do what I can while praying for the EMTs to arrive soon. I’m simply not equipped to deal with serious injuries. And with all due respect, suggesting that more dance or drama be added to the curriculum does little to help the people “on the ground,” classroom teachers, foster creative thinking in students.

To explore creative thinking in the classroom we must first recognize that creativity is broader than the arts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a HUGE supporter of arts in the schools. Music, drama, writing, architecture, and literature are major contributors to my life, and I’m learning to appreciate the arts not included in that list. I believe strongly that young people should receive regular experiences and instruction in the arts.

However, creative thinking is a valued process in nearly every field. The Root-Bernsteins realized this when they launched their ground-breaking research on creative thinking. From their penetrating study, the Root-Bernsteins identify “thinking tools” employed by creative individuals.1 These tools cross disciplines, showing creative breakthroughs in multiple professional fields. For example, a practicing biologist is just as likely to gain insight from analogizing as a sculptor of abstract artwork. The Root-Bernsteins show us that creative thinking possesses value beyond the stage and easel. Unfortunately findings from the study “Are They Really Ready to Work?” reveal that only 21 percent of American corporate leaders reported excellence in this area among recent college graduates seeking employment with their companies.”2 Nearly ⅘ of the corporate world is dissatisfied with the creativity new hires bring to the workplace. Creative thinking needs to be an emphasis in all of education, not just students’ training in the arts.

To integrate creative thinking into our teaching, we need answers to a few questions: 1) What do we know about creative thinking?, 2) Is there any relationship between creative thinking and learning?, and if so 3) How can we engage students in creative thinking while continuing to teach our required curriculum?

While much of what sparks creativit
y and the neurological processes that enable it remains a mystery, evidence suggests creativity includes a period of disorganization prior to creation. In the landmark book The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen hypothesizes:
...that during the creative process the brain begins by disorganizing, making links between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not been previously linked. Out of this disorganization, self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain. The result is a completely new and original thing: a mathematical function, a symphony, or a poem.3
My favorite description of this disorganization-reorganization process comes from architect Steven Holl, who writes:
In each project, we begin with information and disorder, confusion of purpose, program ambiguity, an infinity of materials and forms. All of these elements, like obfuscating smoke, swirl in a nervous atmosphere. Architecture is the result of acting on this indeterminacy.4
Perhaps the presence of “obfuscating smoke” is what prevents us from knowing more about creativity. However, it appears that a period of disorganization gives way to a period of defining and organizing, which is followed by a period of associating data with known concepts through which patterns begin to emerge.

If true, creativity shares some cognitive processes with learning. In fact, since learning involves the transformation of data into meaning, some researchers describe learning itself as a creative act. It is possible that these shared processes result, in part, from shared brain geography. As Science writer Greg Miller explains, researchers at University College London found that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for forming new memories, is also essential for imagining scenes. Such findings “provide experimental evidence that memory and imagination may share neural circuitry.”5

These findings hold potential implications for us as educators.

First, if creative thinking promotes personal and professional success, it is something we should be addressing in schools. Sir Ken Robinson is right: “Creativity is possible in science, in technology, in management, in business, in music, in any activity that engages human intelligence.”6 As such, creative thinking should be one of the portals through which we engage students in our subject matter.

Second, if creativity and learning aren’t completely different languages—if, in fact, they share cognitive processes—then integrating creative thinking into learning should be possible. We should be able to design instruction that engages creative thinking that not only fosters its own development but also deepens the learning of our original subject matter.
We need to find ways to welcome the “obfuscating smoke” into our classrooms!

We’ll explore some how-to ideas in the second post on this topic. Perhaps then we can silence, or at least dampen, some of the sirens.

By the way, these ideas are explored in depth Chapter 8 of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain. Copies are available directly from Clerestory Press or through

  1. Root-Bernstein, R. & Root-Bernstein, M., Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Boston: Mariner Books, 2001), 118.
  2. Rappaport, J., Arts Skills are Life Skills.
  3. Andreasen, N.C., The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 77-78.
  4. Holl, S., Phenomena and Idea.
  5. Miller, G., A Surprising Connection Between Memory and Imagination, Science, 315, (2007), 312.
  6. Robinson, K., Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing, 2001), 10.