It’s agonizing to watch. Sometimes it occurs as a slow leak, seeping from a pinhole in the bottle. Other times it’s a torrent flowing freely from a gaping hole. Sometimes it’s somewhere in between.
However it happens, it’s tragic. The death of motivation should be mourned openly. And it should be acknowledged it’s happening far too often in the classroom
Let’s explore the idea through an experiment. If you’ve not read Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality, you should remedy that. In the book, he explains an experiment he conducted with Harvard undergraduates. Here’s the setup.
Subjects were paid on a declining wage scale for each 40 piece, Bionicle Lego set they assembled. The first set assembled earned the participant $2.00. The second set earned $1.89. And each subsequent set earned $0.11 less than the one before. Once the declining wage reached $0.02, it remained static for every set assembled thereafter.
The first group was given a new box of the Bionicles, and after completion, the assembled Bionicle would be set on the desk in front of the subject, and a new box would be received. After each set was completed, the subject was told how much money he had earned to that point, and the assembled Bionicle would be added to those previously assembled on the desk in front of the subject. The subject continued building sets until he made the decision to stop.
The second group was given a box of Bioncles to complete, and after completion, a new box of Bioncles was handed over. While the subject began work on the second Bionicle, the experimenter took the first one and disassembled it in front of the subject, placing the pieces back into the first box. Once the subject completed the second, the experimenter immediately gave the subject the box of pieces that had previously been assembled. Again, after each set was completed, the subject was told how much money he had earned to that point. The subject continued on, building the same two sets repeatedly. The subject continued building sets until he made the decision to stop.
The experiment was set up to see what impact the perceived meaning of a task had on the output of a subject. The results are fascinating.
The first group completed an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40 for the experiment. The second group built an average of 7.2 Bionicles, and received an average of $11.52. For more details about this experiment and the findings, I’d recommend you read Ariely’s piece from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning: The case of Legos.”
Think about being in that second group for a moment. About the satisfaction of completing a Bionicle, handing your work over to the experimenter, and watching what you’ve just done deconstructed before your eyes. Watching the deconstruction while you are set to work on the next set. Then coming to the realization that what you are doing at that very moment is only minutes away from receiving the same tear down as the first set you worked to create. Then realizing no matter how many sets you complete, there won’t be any final product to demonstrate the effort and work you are expending. That what you are doing, in essence, is meaningless.
Now think about our students.
When I was in high school, I had a math class I abhorred. Because every night I would spend hours on homework. Always the evens, because the answers to the odds were in the back of the book. When I got to class the next day, the teacher would walk around and check to see if we had finished our work. We’d get credit if we did. We’d get zeros if we didn’t. On random days, we would score the work and receive a grade equivalent to how many answer we got correct. But our work always stayed in our notebooks. Nobody ever saw it. Except the two second fly by from the teacher.
Every night I was creating a Bionicle set, and each following day, my teacher was disassembling it.
I wonder how often I did that to my students when I was a teacher. How often I assigned work that proved to be meaningless. Work that killed the motivation of my students.
At the end of his article, Ariely states, “Thus, monitoring that is accompanied by increased meaning (recognition, education, acknowledgment) might not only eliminate the negative side effects of control, but also increase workers’ effort and motivation.”
I think the same can be said for our students. Give them assignments that are meaningful, and watch the effect. Don’t ask them to paint a house with water. Give them the opportunity to create something that can produce a recognizable result for their efforts. Something they can be proud of. Something they can care about. Something you can care about.
And watch how many Bioncles they are willing to make for the world.