Do you want intrinsic motivation? Let them keep what they create.

Last week, having been set a written task, one of my students said to me, “Does this have a grade?” A reasonable question, eh? Mind, she’s only ten.

My heart sank a little. “Of course, I assess everything.” I replied (feeling deflated). For one thing, I don’t assess everything. But for another far more profound thing, I felt defeated.

As all teachers know, “Does this have a grade?” means “Do I really have to put energy and thought into this?” But, the fact that this student was only ten made me worry about her attitude to learning at such an early stage. Effectively she had learned a lesson (quite rationally I would add) that some things are worth doing, whilst others are not. But this is based solely on factors external to the task.

This incident got me thinking what motivates us – and which motivations are most conducive to learning. The first education book I ever read was Jeremy Harmer’s excellent “Principles of English Language Teaching”. Having started my teaching career as an ESL teacher, I firmly believe that ELT is one of the most vibrant and student-centred areas of pedagogy – so many ideas have sprung from this quarter (free as it is from political interference). Anyway, in the first chapter, Harmer distinguishes intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn. An extrinsically-motivated learner is driven by potential rewards, results and fears. An intrinsically-motivated student would engage with a task for enjoyment, love of the subject and the kind of internal reward that comes from a job well done (job satisfaction?).

So, if a student is asking me whether a piece of work is to be graded or not, it is likely that the task is of so little consequence to him or her, that a grade is necessary in order to endow it (externally) with consequence.

This, in turn, got me thinking about how to engender intrinsic motivation. I looked at the many resources available to me (reward, grades, sanctions, report cards, targets) and could only conclude that a great majority of them are external motivators and can, if used improperly, foster a Pavlovian confusion of learning and results, whereby a child is so fixated on the end result that all learning is for nought. These would be the diligent children who ask you how many paragraphs their story should have, as if putting that into a success criteria would give them a magic formula for all future purposeful writing.

Our school has an incredible DT department, and our students can often be found in any spare moment working on some elaborate product design. There is something intrinsically purposeful about DT which I think has a tangible appeal to students because of its tangibility! What if I sprinkled my English teaching with a little DT (without, of course, treading on my colleagues’ toes)? How might that de-emphasise external motivators (like grades) and bring ”love of one’s labour” to the fore?

In DT, children often get to keep the outcome, and if they don’t, they quickly let you know how disappointed they are! So would it be enough to let kids keep their written outcomes in some fashion? My immediate thought is the writing portfolio, but somehow that doesn’t cut it. It is still too nebulous a thing to really capture the imagination of a young student. What might cut it? Let’s see…

Here is a list of ideas to generate pride in one’s work for its own sake, by creating a greater sense of sculpting, refining and, crucially, wanting to keep the finished product:

1) Have the students create their own blog, which follows them from year to year – an online, student-owned writing portfolio that, once they leave school, could be their springboard into a lifetime of fruitful blogging.
2) Work with the DT department to hang written pieces off their design work (using your lesson time of course). Could they write and perform an advertisement for their product? Could they write diary entries about the emotional aspects of the development of the product (with all the urgency of an eleventh hour reality TV home makeover!).
3) Record the end product, but assess the written build-up. Then, of course, they could upload the recording to their blog. A recording could be a radio adaptation of their story writing – perhaps with several students taking on different roles.
4) Submit their work to publications or websites targeted at young people. A great many children’s magazines and websites frequently publish submissions from their readers. These are often pictures, but why would they not publish illustrated written work. If you don’t know which magazines accept submissions, ask your students – they will know.

I’m going to investigate the above, and see if I can generate that elusive, intrinsic love of learning. Hopefully, the student that inspired this article will come to me one day and say, “Ooh, and this gets a grade as well?!”

If you have designed English language or literature unit plans around physical outcomes, I’d love to hear how it worked out.

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