What motivates our kids?

Recalling my first year at university, I’m reminded of the buzz words surrounding student motivation.  ‘Intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation were terms that we bandied around, but I’m not sure I really understood it.  As teachers, we are generally really good at extrinsic motivation.  Entrepreneurs have built countless businesses upon educational stickers, stamps and prizes and I am guilty of stocking up a huge selection of these forms of motivation.  I even have the really special ones that say, “Miss H says great work!”

I realised this week that all of these stickers and stamps are neatly organised into rows in my top drawer.

This led me to wonder, what motivates my students? They’re obviously motivated to learn because they arrive at school happy and confident to enter my classroom.  They are making huge achievements, both academically and socially, but I’m at a loss as to what motivates them.  It’s obvious they’re not motivated by stickers because I still have a drawer full, and they’re not asking for them or wondering why there is no sticker on their work.

I taught a literacy lesson on noun groups recently, and my question was answered.  My students were directed to use a formula to create a noun group that describes a character they would like to write about.  I was surprised when one of my students raised his hand and offered, “crusty old grandpa”.  My surprise was because this student is not one who usually raises his hand and offers suggestions.  It was my response to this suggestion that answered my question.  I made a huge fuss of his suggestion with comments like, “Yes! I love it.  That’s a great noun group!”  I asked him to repeat it for those who didn’t hear and offered a hi-5.  It was this reaction that motivated the rest of my students to move beyond the standard answers they had been previously offering and challenge themselves to create more sophisticated noun groups.  Their subsequent writing was brilliant and I was suitably impressed.

I realised that my students all thrive on being able to please me and work tirelessly for such a reaction.  They are all craving the hi-5 that I offer when one of them has a ‘lightbulb moment’.

My next question for reflection is, how did I manage to set up such a culture in my classroom.  I assure you, it was a complete fluke this year!  I also wonder whether it is this exceptional group of students that I teach, or whether it applies to all students… a question that I’ll have to wait until next year to answer.

The one thing that I have learned is that I do have the ability to motivate my students in such a way that my wallet is happy as well!


10 thoughts on “What motivates our kids?

  1. just read it Sarah…. nice work by the way….. we as teachers often forget that students love the little things in the classroom like the hi 5 and the praise, that they dont need that sticker to say that they did a great job because we said it personally to them.

  2. Your post is very interesting on a variety of levels. I struggle with the notion of treating children like ‘pavlov’s dogs’. Human beings enjoy positive interaction, but it is important that our students do not only work because they expect to be rewarded- really they are expected to go to school, get on with their work and be self reflective and motivated by their desire to improve and challenge themselves to develop. In an ideal world this would be true for all kids. Our responsibility as professionals is to differentiate the tasks, engage the kids and apply our professional skills to facilitate the process. Our work on student engagement and authentic feedback will be key for us all to focus on supporting our learners to develop. Writing ‘good job’ has its place on a limited level. ‘Great use of adjectives and complex noun groups. Maybe you could add an adjectival clause’ will have a much greater impact. The ‘hi 5’ followed by your learning intent reinforced is a great, personal connection with your students. Developing a relationsip as well as reinforcing your goal for the lesson. This works for kids and colleagues- we prefer to work in a supportive, positive environment, no matter how old we are! Your work on student centred learning sounds like it will really have an impact on the kids to be independent and take ownership of their learning-leads to high motivation. Look forward to how it goes.

  3. You motivate your students by being an enthusiastic learner yourself!

    However stickers, stamps and even lollies are sometimes an easy way in with a new class, where you are all still getting to know each other. Some students are also a bit reluctant with the physical contact of a hi5 (I have taught mainstream autistic students like this), or for other students being singled out in front of peers (even for praise) can be daunting at the start, so the sticker does have a place, but for me it is a small one. But it is really important that we provide students with a reason for the praise – great work today with that tricky Maths problem, well done for finishing that task before it was due etc.

  4. Great post. How true, praise and positive reinforcement is so important to our students. I think that there is also a place for those stickers. Sometimes if I give out a praise certificate and have forgotten the sticker, I am gently reminded that the sticker is missing. A sticker in a way is another form of praise. You are so right, motivation doesn’t need to involve a monetary cost.

  5. I love this and hope teachers of older kids realise the desire to share learning in a supportive, positive environment continues to exist under the underachiever-and-proud-of-it exterior. Maybe not the high-5 but the genuine impressed sounding voice (“you guys rock, now try…”, “wow i would not have thought about it that way, what else can you tell me?” – I know these sound corny typed here) with authentic feedback goes way further than awards and certificates or even marks.

  6. Sarah that was a witty and great story… it truly made me smile… Kids do love to please their teacher. When you are excited and passionate about a topic the kids do connect. I also think that over a period of time stickers in their books and on their work just don’t do it for older children, BUT they do love them on awards!! I even cut and give mine a ‘pretty’ edge with scrapbooking scissors…. they love it! I have other teachers who tell me they feel the pressure from their class to do the same with their awards… heheh

    I am going to look forward to reading your other posts.

  7. Very interesting read Sarah. I can completed relate to ‘my students all thrive on being able to please me and work tirelessly for such a reaction.’ As a student this was me. Even as an adult I thrive on reaching my personal best and pleasing those around me. This was somethings that my teachers encourage when I was at school and something I try to encourage in my students. I want my students to become responsibly for their own learning and I want to encourage them to become successful, self-regulating, confident individuals who strive towards reaching their personal best.

  8. Sarah- your blog is amazing! I’ve just spent the last hour reading your posts along with the comments others have made about your very interesting discussion topics.
    The old ‘hi 5’ reaction is always a winner! I smiled when reading your post on motivation as I recently offered a ‘hi 5’ to one of my ESL students (phase 1), and she simply ‘left me hanging!’. She raised her hand, but was unaware of what was supposed to happen and clearly didn’t understand why I would offer this as a sign of recognition for her learning efforts. If she walked out of my lesson knowing no more English than she did before the lesson, than I hope she left with the understanding that my simple ‘hi 5’ was my way of saying I’m proud of you and I acknowledge your efforts and admire your courage to ‘have a go!’.

  9. Way to go Sarah! I am always learning things from you and it motivates me to try them in my classroom. We spend a lot of money buying stickers and stamps for our students to reward them when they have a ‘lightbulb moment’ but it doesnt necessarily mean that they will do it again. A sticker will end up on the floor, in the bin or in the washing machine as it would have been stuck on their cloths. A simple ‘Hi 5’ or positive feedback will stick with them forever, repeated in the playground to their friends and to their parents at home.

  10. Pingback: Praise (Part 2) | crunchyeyebrows

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