Why do some kids arrive at secondary school already motivated to work hard, while some arrive demotivated to exert much effort at all in lessons?
Picture two students you’ve taught: one who works incredibly hard, and one who seems incredibly lacklustre and avoids making effort. What explains this difference? How does motivation work?
In a series of five blogposts, I plan to explore what we as teachers can do about motivation, self-control and willpower in school. There’ll be stories of elephants, chimps and bees; mindsets, biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. The heroes of the story will be Carol Dwek, Daniel Kahnemann, Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, Jonathan Haidt, Kelly McGonigal and the Heath brothers. Going beyond the cognitive psychology I’ve been exploring, this is a journey into our social, intuitive minds.
In the first post of the series, I want to see how two approaches from the field of economics might apply to the question of motivation: game theory and behavioural economics.
But to start with, why is motivation so important? I think Hattie and Yates capture it well:
- Learning requires effort, attention, concentration, discipline and motivation
- Material is subject to rapid and substantial forgetting
- Concentration spans are short, and attention is easily disrupted
- Concentration and self-control place great stress on mental resources, which are subject to overload
- Self-control strategies are insecurely learned, relatively unpracticed and easily depleted
The Willingham hypothesis is that what drives motivation is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’.
For instance, when you are given a Sudoku puzzle, crossword or mental arithmetic problem that is too hard, like working out 23 x 79 in your head, how much do you feel like attempting it? How about a question that is far too easy, like 5 + 5? We are motivated by problems that are both challenging and attainable – otherwise we get frustrated, bored or complacent. Teaching should stretch but not overwhelm students.
But that’s certainly not all there is to motivation. What about pupils’ perceptions and expectations? That’s where game theory comes in.
Effort Exertion & Game Theory: Rational Expectations
In one of the most thought-provoking blogposts I’ve read all year, Trying is Risky, David Thomas used game theory to model a pupil’s choice in a lesson: whether to exert effort or not.
In any lesson, students can make one of two choices: to exert effort, or not to exert effort. The lesson can be a good lesson, or it can be a bad lesson. A good lesson is one where a student will learn if they exert effort; a bad lesson is one where they may not. For each pair of inputs there are two outcomes: the student’s level of academic and social success.
‘So how does a student make their choice? It depends on how likely they think the lesson is to be a good one. Call the student’s perceived probability of the lesson being good, p. If p is high, then they’re more likely to choose to exert effort, as it’s more likely they will get the best available outcome. If they perceive the probability of it being a good lesson to be 50%, most students would, quite rationally, opt to not exert effort. They are risk averse: they’d much rather choose a strategy that guaranteed them an okay outcome than a strategy that gambles between a good outcome and a bad one.
‘The goal for teachers is making p as high as possible so that all students exert effort in lessons. This is affected by prior experience of the subject, self-esteem and school culture, not just teacher quality. Students believe they’ll do badly in Maths because they’ve always done so before. Raising p is about breaking this damaging chain of reasoning, and the only way to go is by forcing them to experience success. This means that you plan your lesson to make sure that if they exert any effort at all, they will have some measurable success.’
Motivating demotivated pupils is about ensuring they experience success in your subject. What I like about this model is that it’s subject-specific, and it locates the solution in the teacher’s sphere of control, whilst acknowledging other factors outside the teacher’s influence.
I’d like to unpack those external factors in the next few blogposts, whilst also challenging game theory’s assumptions.
The greatest challenge to economic modelling is that of the rationalist delusion. People – especially pupils – don’t always act rationally. There’s little rationale for sabotaging their own learning in the way some seem to, and it doesn’t always result in social success.
Behavioural economics offers another way of looking at motivation. Daniel Kahnemann is the chief exponent of this approach, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. In this view, our minds are made up of two agents: fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic system 1, and slow, deliberate, effortful, and reflective system 2.
Effort & Attention: the Lazy Controller
‘System 2 requires attention, is disrupted when attention is distracted, and requires continuous effort exertion. Conflict is common in our lives between an automatic reaction and our intention to control it. System 2 is in charge of self-control. System 2 prevents us from reacting foolishly to insults, for instance. A defining feature is that its operations are effortful, and one of its characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is necessary or comfortable. We conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort. The effortful thinking that we demand of pupils requires discipline and self-control.’
‘The law of least effort is operating here. He’s thinking as little as possible.’
‘Both cognitive work and self-control are forms of mental work. Several studies have shown people simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task are more likely to yield to temptation. People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices and make superficial judgments in social situations. Cognitive load is not the only cause of weakened self-control – a sleepless night is too. Self-control requires attention and effort.’
‘Effort of will or self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up. This phenomenon has been names ego depletion. Ego-depleted people succumb more quickly to the urge to quit. Later, they give up earlier than normal when faced with a difficult cognitive task. The results of depletion can be reacting aggressively to provocation; persisting less; performing poorly in cognitive tasks.’
‘Activities that impose high demands on system 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting, unpleasant and involves a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another.’
Incentives and training
‘In several experiments, people were able to resist the effects of ego depletion given a strong enough incentive. University of Oregon researchers explored attempts to raise intelligence by improving control of attention. Training attention not only improved self-control, scores on non-verbal tests of intelligence also improved and the improvement was sustained for several months.’
We demand extraordinary efforts of cognitive work and self-control from pupils every day. Some pupils have weaker system 2 than others. The paradox is that our pupils with weak self-control need it most but find it hardest. David Thomas is right to say that self-control depletes, habit rescues.The only way out of the paradox is this: we must strengthen their system two by building the habit ofself-control to get it increasingly on autopilot. Where might we, as teachers and school leaders, start?
- Frame tasks for optimal challenge in your subject
- Frame lessons to ensure demotivated students experience success in every lesson
- Strengthen pupil’s attention spans and their deliberative, effortful system 2
- Make pupils’ habits stick with meticulous planning and persistent practice
- Reinforce effort exertion and set the bar at 100% of pupils on task every task
- Train pupils’ control of attention and teach self-control explicitly
- Ensure social incentives reinforce system 2 effort exertion and self-control
- Create a summer school with practice routines to automate the habit of self-discipline
On exploring the rationalist delusion, Jonathan Haidt said: ‘It just seemed too cerebral. There was hardly any mention of emotion’. Next week, I’ll look into the emotional side of motivation, and how trust, empathy and relationships affect how hard pupils work.