Motivation Matters

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My career in the classroom has inspired some classic teacher nightmares.

In my dreams, I show up very late for the first day of school only to discover that my grade level has been switched. I ride the bus to school in my pajamas. (Actually, that was Spirit Week.) I teach a class of forty-three students without a classroom, and live through a mundane Friday only to discover that the final bell is actually my morning alarm.

Every one of these dreams has disturbed my sleep, but what really keeps me up at night is the thought that, despite my efforts to nurture thoughtful, empathetic members of local and global communities, I have instead helped churn out materialistic, manipulable consumers.

Perhaps that last one makes me odder than most, but before dismissing it, indulge me for a moment and consider why you are here on Teachers Going Gradeless. It’s unlikely you are being granted PD points for visiting the site, and certainly, you aren’t being paid, so why are you here? Did curiosity prompt you, begging the question, “How can school possibly exist without grades?” Have you experienced growing discomfort with students who seem to be more focused on their GPA than on learning? Whatever motivated you to click on the link that brought you here, it is likely rooted in some intrinsic desires and not some extrinsic scheme. With some of your limited discretionary time, you chose to visit a website about pedagogy.

Now, take the type of motivation that inspires you not only to teach, but to spend free time honing your craft, and compare it to the tactics often used to motivate students. High marks are dangled as rewards while low marks are wielded as punishments. Pizza hut offers free pizza to promote reading (and pizza, of course). Stickers, class rankings, and extra credit continue to focus student attention on achievement rather than learning. As Daniel Pink puts it in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us“[w]e’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement.”³ If extrinsic motivators didn’t bring you to Teachers Going Gradeless, if your desire to actively engage in education and improve yourself as a teacher comes from within, why would we attempt to inspire and motivate students extrinsically?

The educators at Teachers Going Gradeless nudged me with this same question when I first connected with them, but just as important, they gave me examples of the power of intrinsic  motivation. Inspired by his own children, Aaron Blackwelder advocates for differentiation in classrooms everywhere. With moving vulnerability, Peter Anderson explores racial injustice. As principal, Mark Sonnemann serves teachers and students in his school with humanity and understanding. They are parents, teachers, and administrators who dedicate time and energy well beyond the requirements of their monetary compensation in order to develop skills, build community, and promote justice. Their examples have been my most effective teachers of motivation and empathy, which brings me back to my nightmare.

If we want [students] to consider the needs and viewpoints of others, we have to guide them gently to do so. If we want them to rely on cooperation rather than power, we have to set that example in how we deal with them. By contrast, offering rewards for compliance or punishments for noncompliance makes it increasingly difficult to promote other-oriented reasoning and empathy.

– Alfie Kohn² 

Just as my TG² peers set an example in their interactions with me, I must set an example of empathy for my students. If I continue to allow extrinsic motivators to shape my practice and color my relationships with students, I can’t be surprised when students struggle with empathy and begin to resemble the alumni in my dream.

My nightmare takes another step into the real world when I consider some of the recent research on how rewards not only erode interest in tasks, but might actually increase a person’s interest in the reward over time.  As the work of Hur and Nordgren suggests, “[w]hen performance was incentivized with monetary rewards, participants reported being more desirous of money, put in more effort to earn additional money in an ensuing task, and were less willing to donate money to charity.”¹ Suddenly it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that students raised on extrinsic pushing and pulling would graduate from school to chase money, promotions, and other status symbols.

No, the sky isn’t falling, but several decades worth of research no longer allow for denial: extrinsic motivations undermine much of what we claim to foster in our schools—engagement, community, empathy. So, whatever motivated you to stop by this site and read this far, it is time to explore motivation more deeply—for you and for your students. Likely you’ve heard the names: Kohn, Sinek, Pink. It is time to read (or reread) them for yourself and discuss what you find with students and colleagues. Flex your intrinsic muscles and help them build and honor theirs. Imagine your school and your community free from drudgery and filled with people who care about each other, who have interesting work to do, who feel they can actually shape the world we live in. That’s no nightmare; that’s living the dream.


Scott Hazeu teaches and learns with Grade 12 students in the center of Canada. They spend their days exploring literature and writing. Discover more of his writing on Medium and Re-Vision: The Continuing Education of a Teacher.

(1)Hur, J. D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2016). Paying for performance: Performance incentives increase desire for the reward object. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(3), 301-316.

(2)Kohn, Alfie. (2016) “Do Our Expectations of Kids Aim Too High or Too Low?” alfiekohn.org. January 22, 2018.  http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/high-low/

(3)Pink, Daniel H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.