Teachers’ Positive Attitude Linked to Greater Intrinsic Motivation in Students

d881e6d98e027d78620f7b71fb5f1327A long time ago, teachers saw the business of teaching as centered on the delivery of information and knowledge in a manner that was mostly strict, largely drills-based, and often coercive.  Then came along folks like John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner, and Jean Piaget, whose educational philosophies moved schools more toward a child-centered and whole child approach.  These days, the incorporation of technology into education, alongside research into brain-based learning, spawned a number of complex educational models designed to accommodate individual learner profiles.

There is a simple upshot of this evolution in educational practices, at least as it pertains to the kind of teachers that do best with students today: Teachers who possess a positive and encouraging mindset—the ones who believe that a student can go to the next level of achievement—are so much more successful with students than teachers who focus mostly on what their students can’t do. I’ve written about these latter teachers in an earlier blog of mine, called “the 79.4% Teacher”:    Click Here to read it.

One way you can detect a poor teacher is to listen to the words they use in the classroom—are they saying things like, “can’t” and “don’t” or “no” a lot? Are they devoting a lot of time grading papers with a red pen and talking about these mistakes in front of the class? Do they have a nagging tone of voice? Is the volume of their voice turned up so that they sound like they’re yelling at students, when they clearly don’t need to be? Are they shushing up the class frequently?

The above description can sometimes mean a tired teacher, a defensive teacher, a lazy teacher. But saying can’t and don’t a lot is a recipe for disaster and a near guarantee that the class will not be progressing toward its potential. Teachers must see in each of their students an ever-growing, ever-evolving human being; the student may exhibit some unusual traits or habits, and of course attentional matters will emerge, but students must be regarded as being on a trajectory of progress and possibility, or it’s game over.

The teacher tone of “can” is one that will nudge the learning attitude of the classroom toward mutual support, intrinsic DSC_0167motivation, and authentic engagement.

Principals and faculty team leaders who devote a healthy amount of professional development time to the cultivation of a positive tone—in all facets of the teacher’s experience—will be able to see success throughout the school. One way to depict this pattern of growth in a classroom is to consider Dr. Marvin Marshall’s “Hierarchy of Social Development.”

Dr. Marshall provides a chart that shows the engagement levels from lowest to highest, topping off at healthy learning and engagement in the classroom. Here’s what happens at each step, from the stage of classroom chaos to the highly evolved classroom marked by intrinsic motivation:

LEVEL D – Democracy  (INTERNAL motivation )
Develops self-discipline
Shows kindness to others
Develops self-reliance
Demonstrates responsibility
Does good because it is the right thing to do.

LEVEL C – Cooperation/Conformity (EXTERNAL motivation)
Does what is expected
Exhibits self-discipline, kindness, responsibility, reliance, etc.—when someone else is present

LEVEL B – Bossing/Bullying (Needs to be bossed to behave.)
Bothers others
Bullies others
Breaks classroom standards
(This level is never acceptable.)

LEVEL A – Anarchy
Out of control
(This level is never acceptable, It is the lowest level of personal and social development.)

motivational-dynamics-in-health-behavior-change-11-728In conclusion, here are some pointers for the teachers out there for moving a classroom toward that ideal of intrinsic motivation:

  • Establish expectations early in the school year, and repeat them whenever necessary.
  • Devote all the time that you feel is necessary to get to know your students better.
  • Separate the deed from the doer—never name call or identify a student with the bad behavior he/she shows.
  • Always punctuate lessons with higher order thinking exercises.
  • Keep to the positive language—say “can” as much as you can. Brainwash yourself, if that’s what it takes, to see the goodness and the potential in each child.
  • Keep striving to move each class lesson along a trajectory toward the kindness, the self-reliance, the intrinsic motivation, and the ethical choices that mark the healthy, positive, appreciative classroom.


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