I am journeying to Birmingham on January 28th to listen to Alfie Kohn deliver the keynote speech for the Alabama Council of Teachers of English (thanks for the heads-up, Helen Smith!), so I have motivation on the brain these days. It is a complex issue for anyone who teaches anyone (which is everyone, if you include training coworkers or interacting with customers, which I do).
The New York Times hosted a guest article on helping students motivate themselves (the original Golden Ticket - intrinsic motivation), and it made these suggestions:
1. Praise effort, not intelligence (think, "You were very persistent," instead of, "You are so smart!")
2. Help students understand and develop self control (the famous Marshmallow Experiment)
3.Assign a 15-minute, values-based writing assignment (to remind students what is important to them)
These are all research-based suggestions, which means that they carry a lot of weight in the education world (think "best practices" which are generally "research-based"). I see the value in these, and the marshmallow video is just fun to watch, too. I do find it interesting that the age of students is not mentioned in any one of these suggestions (even the Marshmallow Experiment write-up does not indicate that this experiement was done with younger students - just that results happened over time). Are we all motivated by the same things at the same age?
I can say that most adolescents can smell insincerity a mile away; if you are praising their effort and don't mean it, you might as well forget it. They will also not be interested in a values-based writing assignment unless you can tie it to their lives in a meaningful way (as opposed to an afterschool special kind of way). Adolescents and teenagers want to know "why?" constantly, and unless you are prepared with an answer to that question, the research above is meaningless. I realize that I am generalizing about younger kids, and it is important to be authentic with them as well, but for adolescents and teens, relationships that are real, with adults who genuinely care about them, may be the key to helping them become more intrinsically motivated.
The jury is out until early adulthood, though. What a kid does in elementary, middle and high school may have nothing to do with their actions in adult life. Motivation is an ever-shifting paradigm, hard to measure and encapsulate in simple bulleted points. What do you do to develop intrinsically motivated kids?