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Motivation And The Willingness To Be Taught

Brian D. Rude, 2009

       Motivation in the classroom, I believe, is not much different than motivation in other areas of life. But how that motivation is managed by the teacher and by the school may be quite different than how it is managed by parents and by society in general. And also, I would argue, motivation in everyday life is poorly understood.

       Motives are always complex. That simple statement, it seems to me, is a very fundamental principle of human behavior. Yet it is often overlooked, underestimated, or even flatly denied. In this article I would like to try to deal with the major determinants of the behavior of children in the classroom. But that is a tall order. I will cut that down a little. I will deal primarily with the willingness to be taught. This is not a complicated idea, but I think it is a very important, and neglected, idea.

       I think there has been far too much idealization in educational thought and literature. We paint pictures of serious children eager to learn, interested in what we have to say, politely exchanging opinions and ideas. Or we think of misbehaving students as victims of some social problem, perhaps valiantly fighting a system stacked against them, as if discipline problems were always a sign of something wrong with the school, as if problem students only need a boost in self esteem to become ideal scholars and citizens. This is a part of reality in some cases, perhaps, but day to day life in the classroom is usually not quite so pretty. Some amount of petty bickering is part of everyday life in the classroom - and just about everywhere else. Some amount of “going along in order to get along” is a part of human life everywhere. A substantial amount of simply doing what you have to do is a part of human life everywhere. A great deal of student action must be motivated by the teacher by means that do not fit the idyllic scenarios we like to imagine. In a very real sense a school is an institution of coercion. Children do not always want to do what they must do. Our job as teachers is to get them to do it anyway. Teaching involves a lot more than just imparting knowledge. It also involves motivating and controlling behavior.

       This may all sound pessimistic and unappealing. But I don't think it has to be. Consider the parallel with traffic laws. Every state and municipality of any size feels the need to enact laws governing the flow of traffic. These laws, in a very real sense, are threats. They are punitive. Traffic control is a system of coercion. We have police and highway patrolmen whose job it is to coerce. Yet when I plan a road trip this coercion is not uppermost in my mind. I don't prepare to do battle with the law every mile of the way. The system of laws that govern our actions on the road are seen by almost everyone as a necessary and reasonable system. We may not be pleased with every tiny detail of the system, and we realize that every once in a while we may get caught by the system, but in general we acknowledge the legitimacy and necessity of the system.

       Teaching requires a certain amount of coercion. When this is done skillfully school brings a great deal of satisfaction and benefit to students. The coercion may be pretty much out of sight. Children don't come to school plotting disobedience any more than I plan a trip plotting ways to break traffic laws. But, of course, coercion is still there. In a healthy society police are seen as helpers, not harassers. In a healthy school the same is true of teachers.

       But this does not mean that the system of coercion should be taken for granted. In a healthy school children should be able to take it for granted, but teachers should not. On the road I don't feel the need to be an authority on the system of traffic laws. A policeman, on the other hand, must know the system much better than I know it. In the classroom a teacher must at times play the roles of policemen, judge, and jury. It is unavoidable. Therefore we must know the system better than the students.

       Shall we use positive motivation or negative? Can we make school interesting so children want to learn, or must we coerce compliance? From the first few paragraphs it might appear that my answer would be to argue for a harsh punitive system, that we must use negative motivation. But that is not the case at all. Coercion and control have an indispensable place in motivation, to be sure, but they are only a part of the total picture. Shall we use positive motivation or negative? I would argue in strongest terms that that is the wrong question. We are not faced with a stark choice of the carrot or the stick. We will use positive motivation, and we will use negative motivation, each in appropriate situations, each as a part of the total picture.

       What then, is the right question? The right question, I believe, is simply "What motivates people?"

       Motives are always complex. I stated that at the beginning of this chapter, and I believe it is probably the most basic statement that can be made in the field of psychology. I further believe that failure to appreciate it guarantees a failure to understand motivation in any substantial way. Before getting in to motivation in the schools I want to mention a few examples that support this idea of complexity.

       A few years back there was a news report about some organization concerned with world hunger. I believe they were having a convention or something. All I remember was they had a motto, "Food for people, not profit".

       Can we take this sentiment at face value? I would say no, obviously not. We would have to understand something about the group displaying this motto. Are they producers? Then the motto is mostly rhetoric. If they are producers they want to make a profit. But would “Food for profit, not people” be a better motto. Probably not;. If the producers involved are citizens of civilized societies they have some ideals. They have some ideas of right and wrong, some ideas of what it means to be a good citizen and a good neighbor, some ideas of fair trade and fair play. .A cynic might argue that they are empty ideals. Producers want to make a profit - end of story. But I don't think it is the end of the story, not by a long shot. The ideals are real enough, but enmeshed in a complex system of competing goals, trade offs, and balances.

       In education a comparable sentiment could be, "Work for learning, not grades". Would this make sense? It might be a slogan worth promoting in some situations, but we should not expect that it will ever be the whole story. Motivation is always complex.

       Not only are motives always complex, they are often hidden. It is easy to think we know and understand the motivations of a person when that person is acting in normal, understandable, ways. But once in a while an incident occurs that puts the lie to this. Here is one example that I think is worthwhile to bring up. This is a real example. Unfortunately I know very few details, but I believe the basic facts to be true. I taught for two years in a prison school when I was younger, and this story was related to me by a colleague. A program was set up by which a select group of inmates could receive some sort of work training off the prison grounds. Of course only the most trustworthy and promising inmates were chosen for this program. One of them, I'll call him Jones, but I do not recall his real name, did well in this program for a length of time, probably a month or so. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, circumstances were such that one day he encountered Smith. Again, of course, I do not know the real names. It turns out that Jones and Smith had a feud of some sort. They were enemies. At first sight of Smith, Jones attacked. I don't know the details, but I suppose he came at Smith with fists swinging. Guards, I presume, broke up the fight and of course Jones was immediately kicked out of the program.

       What motivated Jones? He had a lot gain by keeping his cool. He had a lot to lose by losing it. He lost. Was Jones stupid? In the usual sense of the word I presume he was not. I didn't know him, but I did know many of the inmates because they were in my math classes. The ones I knew were doing math on the junior high or high school level. Can you be stupid and solve equations in algebra? It is easy to accuse Jones of stupidity, and my informant certainly did. It looked stupid because all Jones had to do to stay in the program was to keep his cool, resist the impulse to act on his hostility to Smith, and everything would be okay. But, it seems to me, stupidity is not much of an explanation for Jones' behavior.

       What can we learn from this example? I’m not sure. My point in citing it is just to illustrate that there can be important motivations that are not visible on the surface. This example does not really establish that motivations are complex, but I think it leads in that direction. We could see Jones’ motivation to behave, to refrain from striking out at Smith. But, when circumstances were right, it became apparent that the nice sensible motivations we attributed to Jones were only a part, perhaps a small part, of the sum total of all the things that motivated him.

       So far I have argued that the subject of motivation covers a lot of ground. But now I will switch gears, I will rephrase the problem a little. Instead of addressing motivation in general I will focus on the idea of willingness to be taught. This may be a strange concept to some. Educational idealism has always much preferred to think that we motivate interest first, and then learning follows. The “willingness to be taught” seems rather negative. It seems to be thinking small. But I think we must be rather cynical. Yes, we should try to motivate interest. To some extent we will succeed, but our success is not the main motivation of effort in the classroom. What really counts in the classroom is the willingness to be taught. Every classroom contains a good many students who are willing to be taught, but little more.

       It is easy enough to recognize extreme cases of unwillingness to be taught. A stubborn child who will follow no directions and sits with his arms folded and jaw firmly set is obviously going to learn very little. If one assumes the performance perspective of teaching then it might be claimed that he would absorb a little. But by the management perspective, which assumes that the child will act and the teacher will manage his actions, he will learn very little. However this extreme example is not the problem that teachers normally deal with. There are other subtle gradations of willingness to be taught that need to be analyzed, and constitute the subject of this article .

       To illustrate variations in the willingness to learn I will present several examples from my experience, and then compare them with what we think of as a normal classroom situation. These are not classroom examples, and that is the point. I cite them to bring into relief what happens in a classroom. In each case I had something that I wanted to teach, but could not.

Example 1:

       I was a college student taking physics courses. This was some years after I had been a teacher. I and a classmate were working on a laboratory experiment that involved using a computer connected to an electronic apparatus to collect and record data. The subject of immediate attention was the program that controlled the computer's data input and processing. My classmate was having a bit of trouble with this program, and I was attempting to help him. My classmate is very intelligent, but at this particular point I was a just a bit ahead of him. I understood the program a bit more than he did. I also had a pretty good idea what my classmate's trouble was. So I tried to make suggestions that would get us on the right track. However my suggestions were to no avail. It was a little frustrating to me, for I felt we were just a short step away from success, but we could not seem to accomplish that short step. I thought I was a good teacher. I thought I had the knowledge needed to get us going again. But in spite of my efforts, we seemed to get nowhere. Why couldn't I help my classmate?

Example 2:

       One summer I had some extra time on my hands. I volunteered at the local Boys’ Club and Girls’ Club to give lessons on band instruments to whoever might be interested. The Boys’ Club did not respond to my offer, but the Girls’ Club decided to let me give it a shot. It had been some years since I had taught music, but I felt I had always done a very good job teaching beginning band. I expected the same success in this situation. After about two weeks, however, I was very discouraged. There seemed to be no progress at all by the girls, and they were losing interest. The initial enthusiasm they had displayed was rapidly dissipating. What was wrong?

Example 3:

       After we had been married for some years my wife thought she might like to play the flute again. She had played in high school, with varying degrees of satisfaction and frustration. At one point I was trying to teach her some rhythms, using methods that had worked well for me in the past. After a session or so we made little progress and we seemed to be getting on each others’ nerves. We quit.

Example 4:

       As a child I was very interested in astronomy and learned a great deal of it. My sister, three years older than I was, had no such interest until one day she wanted to earn a girl scout merit badge in astronomy. Knowing my interest she turned to me for a bit of help. I was not a very nice little brother. I was at an age when I thought all girls were nerds, and sisters even worse. But still I was excited by the prospect of sharing my passion. I like to think I was able to help her with astronomy a little, but that’s hard to say, as she was always smarter than I was. Perhaps she was just trying to do the right thing as a sister in involving me. But what I remember most about the experience is my disappointment when her interest seemed very superficial and transient, and totally non-existent after she got the merit badge.

       All these examples involve a lack willingness to be taught, but all are very understandable. In each case I was thinking of myself as a teacher, or at least as momentarily acting as a teacher. But I was not treated as a teacher. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to put ourselves in the place of the "student" and understand the lack of motivation.

       In Example One my fellow physics student simply did not recognize me as the source of progress. If I were a professor helping this student I might say, “now look at this line in the code here,” and the student would indeed look at that line in the code. But as just a friend I could not be quite so direct, and more importantly the response would be different. I could say, “now look at this line in the code here”, but my friend would be under no obligation whatsoever to really look at that line of code there. He might take it as just one more turn in the ongoing conversation. But that conversation, in his mind, is under his control as much as under mine. My friend was not stubbornly resisting my teaching. It was just not a situation in which he expected me to teach and himself to be taught. I was not able to impart the brief ideas that I felt were needed.

       In Example Two the girls at the girls club had many other things on their mind. A girls club is a place to have fun. Learning to play an instrument sounded like fun to them, and they wanted to do it. But the situation was quite different than a school setting. At school you have to mind the teacher. In a social setting, which was the situation at the Girls’ Club, you simply have to be polite, or nice, or friendly, or something like that. In the girls club the girls expected to fill the summer in a pleasant way, but of course they were free to do things their way. I should not have expected the situation to be like a school setting.

       In Example three I shouldn’t have let myself think of myself as a teacher. Spouses do not generally try to teach each other anything. It would be a rare couple who could make it work.

       In Example Four my sister was not really interested in astronomy. She just wanted the merit badge. She got it. My disappointment that her interest did not survive the merit badge was just ignorance on my part.

       I was not a teacher in these situations, but in each case I did have some knowledge that I wanted to impart. These examples illustrate that we must have something better going on in the classroom than the motivations described in these examples. Very little would be accomplished if we did not. Of course some learning took place in all these situations, but not hard core learning, not the kind of learning that would sustain a civilization. In each situation I was not defined as a teacher, at least not like in a school setting, and the willingness to be taught was not like in a school setting.

       So how does motivation work in a classroom? My argument at this point is simply that the willingness to be taught is an important part of classroom motivation. It would seem reasonable that there are a number of factors that determine one's willingness to be taught. I will list some factors that come to mind, but will not at this point try to identify their comparative importance.

1. interest in the subject matter

2. goals of the learner

3. authority, system of coercion

4. learner's understanding of process

5. expectations of learner, hidden assumptions

6. mental habits

7. social relation between teacher and learner

8. social relations among students, both cooperative and competitive

9. formal or traditional societal expectations

       I believe each of these factors is worthy of serious consideration, but it is the last, formal or traditional societal expectations, that is the backbone of motivation for learning in school. I know it is educational heresy to suggest that interest is not the most important factor in learning, but I will not only suggest it, I will vigorously argue it. My argument is that a willingness to learn is a very important part of motivation in school. To develop this idea I will use a situation that prompted my thinking for this article. This happened a few years ago:

Example 5

       My eight year old daughter was sitting at the dining room table doing homework while I was washing the dishes. She doesn't like spelling, she stated. I looked over at her and observed she was industriously writing in her notebook. I asked her about it. She said she doesn't like the writing. It's tedious. But within minutes it was done and she was ready to move on to something else.

       What is her motivation in this situation? Is it interest? Is she diligently working because her teacher has aroused an interest in spelling? If that is the case then it would seem reasonable that when the interest falters then the diligence would falter. But judging by her words, a plain simple expression of distaste for the task, interest has faltered. Indeed it has failed completely. Yet the diligence remained. The diligence was adequate to the task. She did her homework. She did it efficiently and effectively. There was obviously something more than simple interest at work here. Her motivation was very real. But what was it?

       One might argue that her motivation was negative, that she was being forced to work against her will. There is some truth in this. I think it would be accurate to say that she is in a system of coercion, a system in which unpleasant consequences ensue when one fails to do what is required. But I don't think this should be interpreted only negatively. Yes, school is a system of coercion, but the rules of the road also constitute a system of coercion to which I am subject every time I get in my car. There is a lot more to it than that.

       School is a system in which there are expectations, in which there are rewards and punishments, joys and sorrows, good things and bad. In a healthy situation, a well run class of behaving students in a well run school, the good things predominate. Kids get satisfaction of accomplishment from their efforts, as well as enjoyment from many things in school that are there simply for enjoyment. Kids learn rather early, in kindergarten if not before, that this is simply the way it is. School is required. Everyone goes. Everyone is held to the rules. There is no choice. A form of fatalism sets in during the first few years of elementary school. But it is not an unpleasant fatalism. It is a fatalism of order and security, not of despair.

       This form of fatalism, I think, is the engine behind the effort in education on a day to day basis. Societal expectations are very powerful. Children learn early that you have to go to school, you have to mind the teacher, you have to do your homework, you have to be ready to go at 7:45 in the morning, you have to be quiet in class. You have to not write in your books or carve your initials in the desk. You have to write neatly. You have to study your spelling words. You have to keep your hands to yourself. And on, and on, and on. So much is required, so much must be learned.

       Yet a visitor to a normal classroom will see no whips or chains. In a great many situations the overall atmosphere will be pleasant. Children are not being abused. Teachers don’t seem to be tyrants. Indeed, one may witness genuine joy on a day to day basis in most classrooms. I think this was evident in my daughter’s classrooms as she grew up. She enjoyed school. I think that was nearly always true. Yet it is equally true that she always did her spelling homework because it was assigned, not because she was interested .

       Societal expectations form a broad basis for motivation in a school. With these healthy expectations firmly in place then a teacher can attend to what needs to be done. She can decide what the children should do in order to learn what we want them to learn. She can explain things and expect the children to listen. She can make assignments and expect that they will be done.

       The willingness to be taught, in the early grades at least, consists primarily of the willingness to follow the directions of the teacher. At least that is what I have been describing. But is that enough? Should we not expect that for a student to learn he or she must consciously have a learning goal in mind, and have a commitment to attain that goal? Is it enough to simply be willing to do what the teacher says?

       When the teacher assigns twenty problems in arithmetic, the child who is simply willing to be taught may give little thought to learning. If he knows how to do the problems, he will do them, hopefully correctly. If he doesn't know how to do them, he may do them wrong, but if the teacher tells him to do them over, and explains what to do differently this time, he will also do that. This may not seem like a very inspiring picture, but it is a situation that the teacher can work with. A simple willingness to do what one is told is a simple beginning, but it is a beginning. Indeed it is a valuable beginning.

       I think we should be wary of expecting more. What more can we expect of very young children, say first or second grade? Why should they have a "desire to learn"? Their world is very small and limited. They cannot have the perspective to know the value of what they are doing. If they can count and add they may legitimately think they know all there is to know about numbers ("legitimately" in terms of what their knowledge base and world view makes possible). If they can read words enough to make sense of a story they may legitimately think they know all there is to know about words. To expect them to understand the need and value of all that they will learn in the coming years is not realistic.

       But even if we grant that students and a young age cannot understand much about their education, don't we still want students to take an active interest in their education? Shouldn't they take on increasing responsibility for their own education as they grow?

       They should, and they do. But how much responsibility for their own education is realistic? Children in first grade, I presume, can take very little responsibility for their own education. But that changes over time. I do not have any first hand experience teaching elementary age children, other than as a parent, but I think it is accurate to say that by perhaps fourth grade students have some idea what it means to study for a test, if nothing other than a spelling test of a list of perhaps fifteen words. When they have this understanding, then they can become more goal driven. They can do things, like study for a spelling test, on the basis of something more than just doing what the teacher says. I think it is accurate to say that by seventh grade or so students have some idea how to study for tests in a variety of subjects. They can become goal directed in that way. At some point, perhaps by seventh grade or so, many students are actively motivated to work for grades, and, I think, beginning to have some realistic idea of the importance of education. This makes them more goal directed. In high school their increasing involvement in their own education includes choosing some of the courses they will take. By the college level, we would hope, students would be motivated by more than a simple willingness to be taught. They should not even be there unless they have some definite goals in mind.

       Responsibility for learning is normally only partial responsibility. When a fourth grader takes personal responsibility for learning twenty spelling words, he is still accepting the structure that society, through the school and the teacher, dictate. The goal of learning to spell those words is rather passively accepted just because the teacher said so. When an eleventh grader chooses a topic for a term paper she is taking considerable responsibility for her own learning, but still she rather passively accepts that she will do the term paper simply because it is assigned. Partial responsibility is not a bad thing. Is there anything to be gained by letting the child choose whether to learn to spell or not? Is there anything to be gained by accepting the child's choice to play video games instead.

       There is a big difference between taking responsibility for one's education, and taking an interest in what one is learning. I have long argued that interest is a natural by product of good teaching. When a child is effectively taught by a skilled teacher, then that child's efforts are directed to actions that result in learning, which results in satisfaction of learning, which results in interest. That interest is very valuable. It makes the world a much more pleasant place for everyone involved. It should always be a goal of teachers. But interest is not the cause of learning. The teacher's knowledge of how to direct the efforts of the learner, followed by the learner's willingness to follow these directions, is the cause of the learning.

       Even at the college level a simple willingness to be taught may remain important. One may adopt the goal of getting a degree, and work conscientiously and diligently toward that goal. One must actively choose a field of study, and actively choose courses that lead to the desired degree. But through most of college, perhaps until one is engaged in research for an advanced degree, much of the work will consist of simply doing what the teacher says, much like in first grade. Getting a degree means taking certain courses. Taking a course, for most students, means enrolling, showing up for class, and doing what the teacher says. This is not nearly so passive as in first grade, perhaps, but in many cases it is still pretty passive. I see that in my students everyday. I understand it. If I need a history course for a degree I have little interest in telling the teacher what he or she should be doing in the course. If the course requirements seem reasonable, manageable, and directed to sensible goals, I will just meet those requirements, take the credit, and move on. I will study the reading, write the assignment, take the tests, even do the term paper if I must. This does not mean that I will have no interest in history, or take no active role in learning it. But the simple willingness to do what the teacher says even at the college level remains an important part of education.

       Can we go beyond a simple passive willingness to be taught? Yes, I think we can, and yes, I think we should. It is always good to strive for more. But we should not have unrealistic expectations. We should not feel like failures if we don't get more. We should maximize the potential of what we have. For many students, at any level of education, there are a variety of reasons why not much more can be expected. In my own situation, teaching college freshman math in a community college, many of my students are trying to squeeze a little education between family and job responsibilities. They don't have time for anything more than fulfilling minimal course requirements and passing tests so they can somehow scrape out a decent grade, which will somehow, sometime, lead to a degree. They don't come to my class with much of a commitment to learning for its own sake. They don't come to my class with a love of mathematics. Indeed, it's more the opposite. Since I teach the lower level math classes a fair number of my students come with a history of frustration with math. But most of them do come with a willingness to accept my requirements of the course, a willingness to complete assignments and study for tests.

       My argument is that this elemental beginning, the simple willingness to be taught is a very valuable asset if the teacher will simply make good use of it. So, in a very important sense, it is enough. It is what we have to work with in many, if not most, teaching situations, and it can go a long way.