I teach at a charter school which has recently adopted three core beliefs:  success breeds success,  all students can and deserve to perform at high levels,  the staff controls the conditions of success. Over the years of “sharing” these convictions, I have become well-acquainted with the limited impact that these written beliefs have on actual behavior. Despite these core beliefs, I have also repeatedly observed the tendency to assign the blame for the poor performance of students to a lack of motivation. The difficulty is that both beliefs are true. People can enter into a spiral of success or failure, and motivation often is the driving force.
Intrinsic motivation is basic to the human condition, though people often become less intrinsically motivated as they age (due to external social factors). For example, my ten-month-old spends hours everyday practicing her basic motor skills: she picks up and throws toys, she climbs on anything possible, and she walks even though crawling is still much faster. Presumably, she does all this for the shear joy of the task, and not out of the hope for future gains. This image stands in stark contrast to some of my students, who always inquire whether a particular skill or definition will show up on the test, and what they can do to raise their grade in class.
This is a foundational idea in self-determination theory, which posits that the primary factors involved in motivation are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Essentially, people are most likely to be motivated when their activities are self-directed, goal-oriented, or social. Whether a student is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to complete a task, they are still capable of utilizing the three factors to increase in motivation. A student who wants to learn so they can be better prepared for law school (extrinsic) is capable of reaching the same level of motivation as the student who learns because they find the subject interesting (intrinsic). It is the student who completes assignments just to avoid failing the class that is at the most risk in this conception of motivation.
Ultimately, people motivate themselves; however, self-motivation is a cognitive process, and, as such, is a skill that can be learned. According to C. R. Snyder’s theory of hope, this skill requires agency and pathway thinking oriented towards a goal. In this conception, hope is found in the belief that a goal is attainable. This belief is achieved when a person recognizes their ability to effect change in a desired way while recognizing a path that can lead to the desired outcome. All people should learn this thought process.
Increasing hope begins with identifying a worthy goal. At the outset performance goals (I want an A!) are typically less worthy than learning goals (I want to learn to read more challenging texts with greater understanding!) in goal-setting, because learning goals cultivate a more hopeful and growth-oriented mindset. The next step is in identifying possible routes to achieving the goal (I can read a college level book while taking notes or I can practice reading and summarizing scholarly articles...). Ideally, several paths should be identified at this point. Now identify possible obstacles that stand in the way (It will take a lot of time to read an entire book; I don't have the access to difficult text; How do I know if I am improving anyways?). Then dispute these obstacles (All improvement takes time if its worth doing; I can find materials online or at the library; I will know that I am improving when I find that I understand what I read more readily). Next up is choosing the route that, given your ability level, is most likely to bring success (I will read, annotate, and summarize scholarly articles). And finally, the hardest though simplest part, follow the plan. This is a skill that most be practiced time and again until it becomes automatic.
I'm learning to juggle. I'm learning to read, write, and think more critically. I'm learning to be a better leader, teacher, friend, father, husband, and Christian. Hope gets me there...
Hope: Believing you are capable of achieving a desired goal.
1. Identify a Goal
2. Brainstorm paths
3. Identify and refute obstacles
4. Determine a path
5. Follow it