Saturday, September 29, 2012

Motivation September 29, 2012

September 29, 2012, near Milton, VT.  I am celebrating about a month of retirement living in Shelburne, VT near the college town of Burlington, adjacent to Lake Champlain.  I drive each fall to visit extreme northern Vermont, where foliage is now at its colorful peak.  As temperatures fall, the synthesis of chlorophyll slows and then stops.  As the green breaks down, other pigments become prominent.  (iPhone)


People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.
~ Albert Bandura (1925-  Stanford psychologist)
Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.
~ Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company, d 1947)
Any activity that prompts self-assessment and goal-setting, and leads students to a clearer vision of what they want from life as well as from education, will likely sharpen motivation and achievement.
~ “Motivation” from Hawaii Pacific University’s Knowledge Base and

Hardly anything important happens that doesn't have to do with relationships . . . It's getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.
~ G. T. Buck, president of Davis and Elkins College (rural WV, enrollment 710), on the roots of motivation

Kari Brunson, who I met in 2009 when I began following ballet dancers on Twitter, had been in 2009 a professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet for nine years.  She broke her contract with PNB in August 2009 to become a professional chef in two Seattle restaurants.  Now, in 2012,  she is a private chef and operates a fresh juice bar at several Seattle locations.   What motivates this kind of decision?   The story of the photo-in-a-pot is at

Executive Summary   Dual hopes drive most teachers: to support student engagement in learning, and to deepen student investment in the process.   The key questions for an educator:  How do I create conditions in which my students make responsible choices about engagement and investment, choices which in turn are based on an authentic understanding of their own needs?  How do I help them discover those needs and How do I establish my content as helpful? In this message, revised from one I wrote for Hawaii Pacific University faculty in 2009, we examine the concept of motivation and a few ways of answering these questions.  You’ll have many added ideas of your own.
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Choices can be driven from within, or from out   An impetus to action can arise extrinsically, from sources outside an individual, to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.  Or it can arise from within (intrinsically), related to (a) authentic needs (from the learner’s self-understanding of goals) or as (b) reaction to imposed control.  An attempt to impose control from outside may work for a time but later backfire when the reward or punishment is no longer supplied.  We all might wish for authentically self-motivated students, but many--perhaps most students come to our care without a clear view of their goals or the skill to establish authentic targets.

Understanding the motives of others is often very challenging   From Africa, Maria arrived in a Fall 2004 general biology class in the 4th week of a class that met only 11 Saturday mornings.   The late arrival—related to travel and visa issues—was beyond her control.   Well-mannered and articulate, she met me after  class to collect handout materials and to discuss catch-up plans.  She seemed clear about the catch-up challenge.  She skipped the 5th class, and was unresponsive when I contacted her.  A suggestion to drop was ignored.   In my mind, her absence from class was irresponsible.  She refused to discuss the matter, not recognizing (I believed) this would produce failure.  However, I had missed a key element of her motivation.  Maria, soon after she entered my class, already viewed its completion as impossible.  But she saw the drop option also as impossible:  loss of the credits would have caused her country to withdraw its support.  Failure was the better of two bad options.  Perhaps the felt shame and illogic of this dilemma made it impossible to explain; I later learned of her reasons from a counselor.    Motivation is a complex fabric, and reality is often less than clear.  

Motivation:  Is it something we are, or something we do?   Motivation is often regarded by teachers, parents and supervisors (Edward Deci calls them “one-ups,” people in authority positions) as situations or rules we set up, tools to control students, children or employees (“one-downs”). The tool is often a reward (a carrot) or a punishment (a stick).  Anyone who has used carrots or sticks knows they often work satisfyingly well, for a while.  But two big problems lurk:  (1) When a one-up stops supplying the carrot or stick, the one-down loses interest; and (2) an attempt to control may cause the one-down to respond by counter-attack:  I’ll show you that you can’t control me.  In Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (Mariner Books, 1999) you can find a research-based analysis of the problems inherent in carrot-or-stick strategies.

Edward Deci,  a humanistic psychologist whose work is quoted in Kohn, makes a strong case that self-determination trumps control when teachers, parents or managers are trying to promote responsible decision-making.   The most authentic power driving choices, he believes, arises when a decider understands his/her own needs and acts in ways that serve those needs.   Find details in his compact, accessible book Why We Do What We Do:  Understanding Self-Motivation (Penguin Books, 1996)

Carol Dweck, in Mindset – The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006 and available in paperback) is an research-based but popularly-written look at powerful internal beliefs (what she calls “fixed” and “growth” mindsets).  Dweck describes an individual with fixed mindset as driven by self-judgment:  this person sees both failure and praise as validation of self-perceived insufficiency, ineptitude—or superiority.  This person may be a high performer, but gives up easily in the face of challenge.  Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, may feel disappointed by setback but sees failure as an energizing opportunity.  Dweck believes that such internal beliefs (a) are largely responsible for success and drive; (b) emerge through childhood experiences; and most important:  (c) can be revised. For teachers, parents and supervisors, Dweck’s work has immense and practical implications.  It means we have important choices that can influence an attitude of success in those we parent, teach or supervise.  Let us look at a few possibilities, from which you can extrapolate many more examples and applications to your own practice.:

Successful teachers model a growth mindset   One friend at Hawaii Pacific University, someone I regard as a master teacher, tells students:  Some of you will find my class materials and topics more difficult than others.  Indeed, some of you will struggle deeply.  But know this:  it is my job to support that struggle; and every one of you will exit my class with more knowledge of the content, better able to navigate it, and a more competent navigator of academics in general, than when you began the class.  [Contrast this with the UH professor—for whom, in 1969, I was a TA--who sternly warned his class of pre-med students:  Look to the left, look to the right; two out of three will be gone from this class in three weeks.]  

Connect students to their own goals, motives, targets and needs   What does education mean?  What will be your investment in it?  Discuss and dissect student investment in education, and weave that thinking into your in-class and out-of-class discussions with students.  Take a peek at Skip Downing’s Oncourse materials here:

Build students’ awareness of their most important skill sets, learning preferences, assumptions and skill development needs: = When you are pressed with questions like What will be on the test?   Ask students what they think employers want.  A guest speaker who hires nurses, for example, will validate that many of the facts students learn will be outdated when they graduate, and that employers most value self-motivated learners and problem-solvers who can work with others in teams.

Scaffolding – building assignments in small steps—helps focus students on specific skill-sets, focuses learners on process and skills rather than solely on final product.  When I lived in Honolulu, it was common to be helped in the Apple Store by a grateful HPU student who spoke of his teacher as demanding presentations but generous with energy helping students understand the elements of successful presentation.  How different, and more highly valued, is the experience of writing as a process of improving thinking, when students come to understand the value of drafts and peer comment.  The why and how of scaffolding is elaboated here:

Use Performance Rubrics to help focus students on elements of performance and on continuous improvement, and off from grades and final products.  Get started with rubrics at  Find a compact introduction to rubrics, and examples, in Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning in 2000, available online at .

Offer hope, any way you can.  Keep classroom discourse civil and safe.  Make mistakes possible and productive.  In Education for Judgment (1991), C. Roland Christensen offers this:  It would be hard to name a more valuable pedagogical accomplishment than the mastery of questioning, listening, and response: three teaching skills as linked, though distinct, as the panels of a triptych.  One of the most information-rich documents I’ve ever seen at one spot on the web is called “Questions for Class Discussion” at a Harvard teaching ccenter page:


No doubt a small percentage of our students have been blessed with supreme self-confidence. But I believe they are the exception. Most students, like most human beings, need help in learning to believe in themselves. Teachers can provide that help. We do it in the ways in which we talk to students; in the praise we give them even when they have failed. We do it by helping them understand that success — in some shape or form — is possible.
Here’s wishing you a peaceful holiday season, one that encourages
 spiritual regeneration and deepens connections with the people you love.

Image of maple leaves and Hydrangea blossoms from Dunn Gardens, Seattle, WA

Forthcoming . . .

October:   Preventing and Coping with Uncivil Classroom Behavior
November:  Building Skill in Leading Student Discussion
December:  Building Persistence in Students

If you are attending the POD Conference in Seattle late in October, please look me up there!

Michael W. Dabney
702 Wake Robin Drive
Shelburne, VT  05482

Phone:  (cell) 808-781-3294   (home) 802-985-0088

Forthcoming travel:  

Seattle--October 23-30
Honolulu--October 30-November 8
New York--November 9-13
New Jersey-Washington DC   November 21-27
Silver Spring--December 18-28
Seattle:  February, March, April, June