Myths of Motivation

“Why are some students motivated and some not? Educators have often said, ‘Some have it, and some don’t,’ as if motivation were genetically imprinted. This view is the ‘innate ability fallacy’ – the false belief that performance is mostly a function of innate abilities. Quick and easy answers do not tell much about the nature of motivation, about what can be done to increase motivation, or even why people become unmotivated, which they obviously can and do become…

…Some educators and psychologists believe that the source of motivation is an inner drive, the inner desire to achieve and get ahead. Others maintain that motivated people commit themselves to purposes, goals, and ideals, and this commitment spurs their motivation and achievement. However, these statements simply describe what we call motivated behavior; they do not tell us how and why ‘some have it, and some don’t.’ Nonetheless, many people – professional and laypeople alike – hold fast to the notion that motivation is an energy or drive that emanates from within a person. If we really believe that, then we might as well stop trying to help the unmotivated; maybe we should just leave the “unmotivated” alone, because they do not have that “commitment,” that “inner drive,” within them. This presents us with a rather bleak picture – fortunately, it is a false one. We can motivate our students to learn. We can help them succeed. But how should we do this?”

~excerpted and adapted from “How to Motivate the Reluctant Learner,” (2004, Dr. John M. McKee)

How to Motivate the Reluctant Learner

McKee’s characters, Sam Slack and Bill Bright, illustrate the power of “fail-safe” learning in education settings. Punishment (negative reinforcement) more commonly leads to failure than it leads to success. On the other hand, positive, successful learning experiences have a powerful positive influence on future learning experiences. In short, all students can learn effectively in a feedback-rich, “fail-safe” learning environment that ensures immediate and consistent success in learning experiences.

As McKee would say, “Nothing Teaches Like Success™.” This picture of Sam and Bill, drawn by Dr. McKee nearly 20 years ago, is still recognizable in our education system today. Students who succeed are more likely to receive encouragement and positive feedback, while those who fail tend to receive criticism and negative, often punishing feedback. As they fall behind their peers, the negative feedback and feelings of failure continue to build. Frustrated, as they are pushed along the educational track, they leave school defeated and convinced that they cannot learn. They also carry these expectations of failure with them, to other learning environments. At-risk students, according to McKee, need to experience learning success first. This does not generally happen through standardized tests, group comparisons, and more negative feedback. They need sequential success experiences in learning, which can develop into expectations of success in the classroom. In order to achieve this “fail-safe” course of study, in most cases, at-risk learners need highly individualized instruction, assessment, and consistent positive feedback from their teachers.

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by Dr. John McKee

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