Motivation vs. Obedience

Claus von Zastrow, who is apparently something of a voice for the educational status quo (he writes for a blog called Public School Insight: What IS working in our public schools”) published a post yesterday on the importance of motivation and the danger of pandering to students’ desire to be entertained all the time. He writes:

Author Dan Pink makes a strong case for “motivation 3.0” in schools. That is, he believes carrots and sticks alone won’t make people behave the way we want them to. Instead, we need to rouse people’s inner drive to do meaningful work. I couldn’t agree more.

But I do worry about what happens when we confuse true motivation with a kind of wish fulfillment: students doing what they want to do when they want to do it. Without a doubt, students should do hands-on work. They should use technology that makes learning vivid and exciting. They should see the relevance of their studies to their own lives and aspirations.

What happens, though, if we condition our students to believe that every moment in school or life should be sublime, or at least entertaining? The truth is that just about any work worth its salt includes peaks and valleys. You’ll have to slog through tough stuff–and boring stuff–to get a real payoff. You have to gain knowledge, and that takes time. Robert Pondiscio recently noted that the day-to-day work of scientists is often tedious. If we’re telling students that a STEM career is all fireworks, they’ll be in for a disappointment the first time they don a lab coat.

I, too, could not agree more (and having worked in “STEM,” I can vouch for the fact that a lot of the time it’s not fun and games). However, von Zastrow seems to me to be missing the point. His view takes for granted that what we ask students to do is right, reasonable, and useful to them, and that it is reasonable to expect them to be motivated to do the things we tell them to do. Those fancy videos and games don’t come from a need to pander to students’ inherent lack of motivation; they come from a need to cover up the fact that students have no reason to be motivated to do the things we ask them to do.

Von Zastrow agrees with Dan Pink when he says, “We need to rouse people’s inner drive to do meaningful work.” But the key word here is ‘meaningful.’ When I spend hours and hours slogging my way through difficult academic papers, or through piles and piles of data, I can’t wait to be done, but I’m doing it because I expect the hard work to pay off in the form of answers to questions that I care about. (And, when I realized that I wasn’t that interested in answers to those questions, I had the freedom to leave academia and pursue answers to questions I do care about.) When my students slog through pages and pages of tedious algebra problems, they don’t have access to any such larger vision. They know that they are supposed to do this; that it will somehow pay off in the form of better grades, which will somehow pay off in the form of a better college; which might pay off in the form of a better job. If they’re lucky.

That’s not inner motivation. That’s outer motivation. Yes, you can argue that students ought to have an inner motivation to get good jobs so they can have lots of stuff and live happy lives. That may be good self-interest, but it’s not passion. It isn’t fueled by a burning need to answer a lifelong question, or to solve a social ill, or to accomplish a dream. Passion like that is inner motivation.

I don’t think von Zastrow is really that interested in whether students are motivated. I think he is interested in students are obedient and disciplined, regardless of the tedium of the task. And that’s not freeing, it’s soul-destroying.


5 thoughts on “Motivation vs. Obedience

  1. they come from a need to cover up the fact that students have no reason to be motivated to do the things we ask them to do.

    This is true. Furthermore, the line of argumentation pursued here, which seems to be a variant on “kids these days don’t appreciate the value of hard meaningless work”, carries an important subtext: “since they’re going to have to deal with hard meaningless work in their jobs and in the rest of their lives, we ought to be starting them on it now”—which idea, in turn, is predicated on the notion that a (if not the) responsibility—indeed, mission— of school is to churn out productive members of the future workforce.

  2. superplexa says:

    I have to say, this subtext is especially ironic in light of the common rhetoric that surrounds education: “We no longer live in an industrial society, we live in an ‘ideas’ society, and just doing a rote job isn’t going to work in the future. You need to be able to think.”

  3. Ouch, Superplexa. I think you might misunderstand my meaning. I am ENTIRELY with you on the issue of “meaningful work.” The drive I’m talking about–and Pink is talking about–is not drive to get a job, make more money, or get good grades to please one’s master. I’m talking about precisely the kind of drive you’re talking about–getting students to understand that there are critical questions out there–questions they care about–and helping them understand how to get there, often through very tedious or difficult intermediary steps. Let them see small successes; let them see the path; help them find passion for answering these questions. But let them know that the road to what they’re passionate about can lead through rocky or uninspiring terrain.

    Great teachers do that all the time. What worries me is when motivation is misconstrued as something more akin to entertainment. I worry when teachers are expected to offer lessons with immediate payoffs without blazing a trail towards those larger more meaningful goals….

  4. superplexa says:


    Thank you for sharing your perspective. I couldn’t agree with this more. Perhaps I was too quick to judge you based on not enough knowledge. I stand corrected. I still believe everything I said, but I apologize for assuming you didn’t.

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