Motivation – why we do the things we do

Over at the Carrot Ranch this week Charli Mills is talking about motivation, specifically the motivation of fictional characters to do the things they do. She explains that ‘motivation can be external–a desire to please, to be found attractive, to be accepted’ or ‘internal–a drive to succeed, a passion to experience adventure, a fear of failure’.

Motivation is not a new concept to this blog and I have explored it in a number of previous posts.

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In What did you do that for? Rewards and motivation I discussed the use of extrinsic rewards (such as stickers, awards and cash incentives) for school students; and questioned the authenticity of intrinsic motivation, which ‘is usually related to something of one’s own choice through interest, challenge or purpose’, in an institution at which attendance is compulsory.  I suggested some strategies that teachers may employ to stimulate an intrinsic love of learning.

why am I doing thiswhat's the point

Continuing the consideration of the effect of compulsory schooling on a learner’s motivation, the post Why do I have to? explored the use of philosophy as a tool for making the goals of education explicit. All three philosophers: Peter Worley, Michael Hand and Stephen Boulter agreed that if students knew why they were expected to learn certain things, they would be more motivated to do so.

the examined life

A discussion of the impact of praise upon a learners’ motivation and achievement was stimulated by reading The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, a book recommended by Anne Goodwin.  The Post Seeking praise – Stephen Grosz revisited explored Grosz’s suggestion that praise could cause a loss of competence, especially if children were being praised for being clever. Responses to the post, including a guest post by Anne Goodwin, added greater depth to the discussion.

Other ideas about motivation abound.

Shelley Wilson’s blog Live every day with intention,  which promises to inspire and motivate you (‘A motivational blog about living life to the full, writing, reading and feeling inspired to follow your dreams’) is the basis of her new book ‘How I changed my life’.

In this TED talk The puzzle of motivation, Dan Pink explains that the value of intrinsic motivation is a scientific fact. While the focus of his talk is the business world, the findings are equally relevant to education. He says that external rewards may work in limited situations but that they often impede creativity. He says that ‘the secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive – the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things because they matter.

Which brings me back to my motivation for writing this post and sharing these thoughts: Charli’s post, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was an introduction to her flash fiction prompt to In 99 words (no more, no less) show the underlying motivation of a character.

My motivations for engaging with the flash fiction challenges set by Charli are both intrinsic and extrinsic:

I enjoy:

  • the dual challenges of writing to a prompt with a clearly defined word count;
  • the opportunity of writing fiction;
  • exploring the application of Charli’s prompt, however tenuous, to education;
  • the camaraderie of the fellow writers and the opportunity to read and comment on their posts and flash fiction pieces; and

I appreciate the feedback, support and encouragement I receive in response to my writing.

In her prompt, Charli suggested that the character ‘may not even understand the motivation fully, but (that I should) let the reader grasp it.’ I have written two pieces in response to this prompt. I hope you enjoy them, and get an inkling of what motivates the characters.

 

More than numbers

The more he stared at the numbers the less sense they made.

They swirled and blurred. He just didn’t get it.

“Numbers don’t lie,” they’d admonished.

“But they don’t tell either,” he’d thought.

The hollowness left when all he knew had been extracted could not be filled with the smorgasbord of numbers loaded on the page.

The richness of lives reduced to mere squiggles.

“This is what’s important,” they’d said, fingers drumming tables of data.

With heaviness of heart he closed the book and walked away.

“They are not even numbers,” he thought. “If they were numbers, they’d count!”

 

 

More than words

“More!” they implored.

She surveyed their eager faces then glanced at the clock.

“Just one more?”

“Okay. Just one more.”

Before she could choose, a book landed in her lap.

“This one,” he said.

“Yes,” they chorused. “It’s a good one!”

She smiled agreement, then started to read.

They joined in, remembering, anticipating.

She turned the page.

“Wait!” he said. “Go back.”

“Did you see that?” He pointed to the page.

“But look what he’s doing,” someone else chimed in.

They all laughed.

The shared joy of a beloved book. Each time the same. Each time a little more.

Thank_you_pinned_note

Thank you for reading. I do appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or my flash fiction pieces.

32 thoughts on “Motivation – why we do the things we do

  1. Pingback: The best of days | Norah Colvin

  2. Pingback: Characters, Get Your Engines Started « Carrot Ranch Communications

  3. clodge2013

    Hi Norah, of course I have to comment on this post!
    First, I loved your two pieces on numbers and words. Especially the numbers one. So many people have learned that they are no good with numbers! It gets in the way of a whole perspective. But the statistics driven view of the world is not attractive.
    But motivation? We often talk about kids in school acquiring motivation as if it is a skill, or a piece of equipment like a ruler. Adults (like characters in fiction) are assumed to have it. I often came across teacher wanting to give their students motivation.
    When I was doing my research into conceptions of learning I used to ask kids ‘why are you learning this?’ They rarely had any idea beyond a) so they would be ready for the next stage of schooling or b) it might be useful in future employment or c) it’s on the syllabus. All instrumental reasons.
    While motivation might sometimes be instrumental (like doing the washing up so that it’s done ready for next use) students might feel more interested and motivated if they undertood why they were being asked to learn something – saw the value of it. (I was asking the students why they were learning about ping pong bounce one day when i was observing in a classroom. I cant say I had any better idea than they did about the purpose of including it in the syllabus). I don’t believe educators are very good at talking about motivation and students are even less equipped.
    Good topic.
    Thanks
    Caroline.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for joining in the discussion, Caroline. I appreciate the additional insights you contributed, especially those from your research. ‘Conceptions of learning’ sounds like such a fascinating topic. I’d love to hear more about your discoveries. It is sad that the students interviewed rarely knew of any purpose for what they were learning other than the three you listed. It is difficult to be motivated when you don’t know why you are doing something, especially if what you are doing has no intrinsic interest. I like your comment about the transference of motivation from teacher to student. I guess the best teachers inspire students to learn and the inspiration may encourage motivation in the students, but it can’t be given as a gift. I thought that the ping pong bounce activity may have been considered fun by the students and engaging from that point of view. But I guess even students know when their time is being wasted. In recent years I have seen a big push for stating explicitly the purpose of, or what students are expected to learn from, each lesson upfront in the introduction. I can certainly see the benefits of this for both student and teacher when specific skills or content are being taught. I’m pleased you enjoyed the topic. I think you have only brushed the surface of what you have to offer. 🙂

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  4. Greg Mischio

    Hi Norah – fantastic post. I have heard there is only one metric that should be measured in education: Can you inspire a love of learning?

    This is so true, as a school should build lifelong learners. I just hired someone right out of college, and he said he was amazed at how little he knew. “I thought I would graduate and be completely ready for a job. I didn’t realize how much there is to learn,” he said (paraphrased).

    When people are continuously learning, they don’t get laid off. Their skills never grow old, they never become under-valued by an employer. They constantly evolve, both professionally and personally.

    We shouldn’t make any class mandatory, or any subject mandatory. The goal of each teacher should be to find a child’s true interests, and show them the subject matter that can help them fulfill those talents.

    This is not pie-in-the-sky thinking. I don’t understand why the “real world” and school have to be mutually exclusive. When you base education on intrinsic motivation – i.e. the love of learning – you truly enlighten.

    Thank you for this!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Wow! Greg, I love your response. Thank you so much for sharing. Do you have a post that expresses these same sentiments? I’d love to share it further. I agree wholeheartedly with your one metric: to inspire a love of learning! To do that one must have a love of learning. Your description of people continuously learning is great. I can remember expressing the same thoughts as your recent graduate – that all the years of training weren’t enough to know everything – there was (and always is) more to learn.
      I love that you say that no class or subject should be mandatory and that education should be based on intrinsic motivation. My thoughts exactly!

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      1. Annecdotist

        I’ve just gone back to your numbers flash and realised the mistake is in my reading, not your writing. A child wouldn’t be looking at tables of data in that way and the statement regarding the complexity of lives reduced to numbers tells me he/she’s engaging in some kind of performance statistics. I wonder why I/we missed it? Maybe we expect you to be writing about classroom activity? Or maybe it’s avoiding the despair many of us will have felt in similar roles when management requires the complexity of human experience to be summarised in a few numbers.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks so much for popping back and adding these thoughts Anne. I thought I had totally missed the mark with my story as a few comments had been similar to yours. Maybe it was a bit too obscure. In my current (employed) writing I am required to be both obscure and explicit at the same time, which I find rather difficult. Maybe I was more obscure than explicit in this one! Your final sentence sums up perfectly what I was attempting to portray. Thank you for understanding. 🙂

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          1. Annecdotist

            Obscure and explicit – that’s virtually impossible, and yet what many of us are aiming for in our writing by hinting at something and not laying it on too thickly.
            If people enjoyed your story – which I think they did – then you’ve achieved something. I think we forget that readers bring their whole worldview to the text and can read into it what works for them. Shelley Harris mentioned this in one of my first author interviews:
            http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/shelley-harris.html

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            1. Norah Post author

              You are right of course. Obscure and explicit works quite well in the fiction arena – a little more difficult when writing lesson plans. You are also correct in saying that readers bring their own worldview to any text they read. As well as the interview you mention, we also discussed this in relation to Stephen Grosz’s book ‘The Examined Life’. Thanks for continuing the conversation. 🙂

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  5. Annecdotist

    I love how you’ve summarised your thoughts on motivation in education and, of course, I’m chuffed to get a reference along with The Examined Life. I like how you’ve spelt out your motivation for taking part in the weekly flash, which I’m sure many of us can identify with. I thoroughly enjoyed both lots of 99 words which are the two sides of the same coin. But that line ‘If they were numbers they’d count’ is such a beauty that’s the one I’d choose, though I love how you’ve captured the joy in the reading one, which I think is a hard thing to do well. Would love someone to introduce that child to what can be done in mathematics without resorting to numbers – or perhaps he just needs to play shops. Great comments here also, further enhancing the pleasure of the post. Yes, I was motivated to read them all to see how people had built on your original words from their very different perspectives.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. I really appreciate it. I’m pleased the content of my post made some connections with you, and that you enjoyed my flash. Sadly though, for me, I missed it with the number flash, judging by the majority of comments received. The main character was meant to be a teacher looking at the tables of collected data which he felt told little of the children’s real stories. I’ll have to go back and think about how I can communicate my intent more clearly. And I agree with you about the richness of the comments. I am indeed fortunate that readers are motivated to so willingly share their thoughts and ideas, increasing the value of the post. As I said in the post, it is certainly one of my motivations for writing.

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  6. Bec

    Hi Nor, I really enjoyed these FF and your musings on motivation too. I particularly enjoyed seeing Anne’s name among the other philosophers you included! I must say, your first FF made me think of our “esteemed” treasurer’s remarks this week. Certainly a character who doesn’t understand numbers ! The story time FF was great too – I felt like I could have been there. I was chatting to a local friend this afternoon – she is 10 and the human belonging to one of the local dogs – and she mentioned how she wrote a poem about an unidentified fruit growing in her yard. It was a bit like a peach, so her poem centred around “kapeach”. I thought it was very cool. I asked her whether she wrote it at school or for fun, and immediately realised what a terrible dualism I was re-enforcing – suggesting anything fun couldn’t have been done at school. Fortunately, it sounds like she isn’t lacking in any intrinsic motivation to be creative !

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec, Thanks for your lovely comment.I really appreciate the story about the young poet in your neighborhood. How lovely that she is enjoying writing poetry. I hope her love of it continues – both in and out of school. The NAPLAN writing task this year was a persuasive piece. Reports tell me that students didn’t do well in it. I doubt that poetry would ever feature as the selected genre, but it would be interesting to see the enthusiasm for the task and the results if it was!
      Anne has every right to be included among the philosophers! She does a lot of musing herself!

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  7. Charli Mills

    I can count on thoughtfulness going into your handling of the prompt, the way you tie it back to education. In fiction, we are seeking to understand why a character would do something, but in education I can see that we are seeking to understand why children are open to learning or not. In the workplace, year after year surveys demonstrate that people seek more than wages–they seek job satisfaction. Your two stories deftly show that one character is not motivated by “what they say” yet the other characters can’t get enough of a shared beloved book. Can numbers be beloved? I suppose in the right framework they could be set up to be fun or fascinating. Just as words can frustrate others who can’t make sense of them. Thank you for sharing your motivations for participating in the weekly challenge, too!

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    1. Annecdotist

      I’m pleased you made that point about motivation in the workplace, Charli. I’m terribly saddened by the damage that uber- capitalism has done to human service workers over the past couple of decades by assuming that people are only motivated by money. In my experience, even those in the lowliest cleaning jobs were motivated to contribute to the overall task of caring for others by doing their jobs well. Yet when those people are overly monitored in an assumption that they want to do as little as possible, they can lose whatever motivation they had in the first place. Okay, we can all have lazy days but generally I think people want to feel that their contribution is valued and that doesn’t only entail being paid for it.

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      1. Norah Post author

        I totally agree, Anne. Job satisfaction is hugely important – that intrinsic motivation; but part of that also comes from a sense of your role being valued. Recognition may not always be important, but a little bit goes a long way. Thank you for joining in the discussion and sharing your ideas.

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      2. Charli Mills

        Nothing kills an employee’s enthusiasm more than being micro-managed or overly monitored. I think that;s what Norah’s first character is feeling–the duress of meeting the numbers without being able to show the connections. If retail is only about dollar profits and classrooms about test scores, then we have failed even when we succeed. It’s the employees who feel they matter even if their job is to sweep the floor or wash the dishes. They contribute to the overall culture of a place which attracts or repels future customers. Test scores don’t engage students to be those life-long learners that Greg spoke of (love that concept, too). And I imagine, human service workers get burned out only focusing on numbers. In our attempts to quantify, we forget about the joys of engagement–the love of a book, the satisfaction of doing our best, engaging with other people, being valued beyond what is calculated.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Lovely comment, Charli. Thank you. I love your final sentence. It is so important I’ll repeat it here: ‘In our attempts to quantify, we forget about the joys of engagement–the love of a book, the satisfaction of doing our best, engaging with other people, being valued beyond what is calculated.’ Gorgeous! 🙂

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    2. Norah Post author

      Thanks for the depth of your response Charli. I guess the numbers were meant to reflect the collection of data that the teacher felt didn’t portray the richness of his students’ learning and experiences. I agree that learning about numbers should be just as fun and fascinating as learning words and reading. I’ll have to rethink my phrasing and word choice to reflect that. Thanks for drawing my attention to the mismatch. 🙂

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      1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I had a more political take on your first flash which I loved. I took the numbers to be data collection and he was pigeon holeing and statistically analysing the data gained until it started swirling on the page as he was unable to extract the truth but policy was going to be made on what the numbers said. With a heavy heart, knowing the bad outcome for the people as a result of his work he said They’re not even numbers (referring to the people) because if they were they would count (be valued). Although you were using an educational situation and I thought politics I think the meaning was much the same as you were trying to get across.
        Charli can numbers be beloved – the answer is definitely yes. Not by me but both my mother and brother used to do mathematical equations for fun where normal people would play hopscotch or the like.
        Thank you for the preamble to motivation and why you do the FF’s.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks Irene, your interpretation of my numbers flash is very similar to my intent but you have transferred it to the political arena. I can see it’s application there too. I love that you said ‘normal’ people would play hopscotch. LOL! There was a bit of number work in hopscotch also – you had to throw the token to the boxes in order, if I recall correctly. I love teaching maths to young children (wouldn’t do so well with the older ones). I am fortunate at the moment to be sharing an office with some maths writers (I write science) and each day I am at work I get the opportunity of discussing how to teach maths in an early childhood situation. I love it! It is fun! And children do get a lot of joy working with numbers. I’m sorry that you don’t enjoy maths. I know many students were turned off by the way it was taught at school (I turned into a incapable reluctant mathematician in my final two years of high school) but I love sharing the joy of the beauty and intrigue of numbers with young children. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          Are you sure? Others had similar interpretations to yours as well. I’m always pleased to hear other interpretations and reflections though.It helps me re-evaluate and/or clarify my own thoughts. I guess too, it is simply confirmation that every reader brings to each text their own thoughts, feeling and experiences and in that way makes it their own. Thanks for sharing your reflections. 🙂

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  8. TanGental

    Great thoughtful post Norah. I fully endorse what you say about how we are really motivated. For a while, when I was in my late teens I realised what I really wanted was to please my mum and dad; then it occurred to me that what I really wanted was their praise. And then I realised that I was just doing it for myself because I felt good if what I did made them happy. Once it was about me, I was happy because I didn’t require any response from them (and I received a lot of responses but inevitably sometimes the responses didn’t seem proportionate to my effort). Once my motivations were selfish, they lasted.
    And if it’s a vote for the flash then the numbers for me!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your reflective comment, Geoff. It is interesting to consider how one’s own motivations change and develop through life, and perhaps how our ‘selfish’ motivations are more enduring. Eventually doing things just to please others may become rather tiresome and difficult to sustain.
      I appreciate your vote for the numbers. I tried to be more balanced in my approach this time.

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  9. lorilschafer

    All my life, I’ve failed to understand why most children don’t like school. Why don’t they enjoy learning, and why don’t they enjoying studying, and why don’t they enjoy writing papers? Because, of course, there are a small percentage of us who do genuinely appreciate the discipline of schooling. And reading your post, now I’m curious – what, as an educator, do you think is the motivation for kids who DON’T struggle in school? I wonder if there could be a cause, either internal or external, for why certain people never seem to suffer from lack of motivation when so many others do.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Lori, You have raised some really interesting points in your comment. I’m so pleased for you that you enjoyed school and that you were lucky to have never suffered from lack of motivation. Because of this, you are probably more able to answer your question about why some people don’t lack motivation. I’m not sure that motivation to learn is actually the issue with children who don’t enjoy school. I believe that children are born motivated to learn. That is what drives them. Unfortunately some young children do not have their curiosity encouraged at home and they quickly learn that asking question can be irksome to parents. Sometimes when they get to school children find that their own questions are neither encouraged nor answered and they are force fed dry facts that appear to have little, if any, relevance to their lives. Sadly, in these cases the children’s natural motivation to learn is impeded. Fortunately for many others, such as yourself, the motivation stays intact. Now that is a very simple answer to a very complex question, simply from my point of view. I’m not sure of any studies that have investigated your question specifically, but they would be interesting to read if they had. Thanks for giving me a little more to contemplate. 🙂

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  10. writersideup

    Norah, I thoroughly enjoyed your “Numbers” and “Words” results from the prompt. Excellent! 🙂 And yes, I agree that it’s what drives inner motivation that has any real value. External simply helps get a job done, but usually with little or no meaning or lasting effect.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Donna. I guess sometimes we do need that external motivation to get some (unpleasant) tasks done, but it is the inner motivation that really drives us. 🙂

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