Disassembling Motivation

Posted by on Mar 10, 2011

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.


  1. Jason
    March 12, 2011

    Another case that teachers make the difference, Ben. First it’s good that you were cognizant enough to reflect on your own teachings to question the style and its impact on your students. Does everyone do it? IMO, not so much… especially as you approach higher education. The younger the mind, the more important it is to make [it] believe that it’s work worth doing. I wrote this piece in 09 – http://www.allmorgan.com/jason/2009/12/A-Tuesday-revelation-in-life-teambuilding-and-finding-our-place-in-the-universe.cfm – that basically describes being a manager/team leader that motivates the team by emphasizing the bigger picture. That is, by helping the company achieve its goals, you achieve your own. We work with a few charters schools. The teachers there seem extremely motivated (a blog in itself, you probably saw ‘Waiting for Superman’) I think it’s a sincere belief in ‘work worth doing’ – An investment in our children today is their biggest offering. I’ll have to check out the ‘Upside of Irrationality’

  2. Hrmason
    March 29, 2011

    Very thought-provoking piece. As a writing teacher (by writing I mean reading, grammar, research, etc.), I am always trying to find real audiences for students to write to, but I’ve always thought of it and teaching them the power of writing and not as a way of motivating them to continue writing. Gives me something to think about. Thanks.

  3. Very Useful Articles On Motivation | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...
    April 17, 2011

    […] Disassembling Motivation by Ben Grey addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Flarryferlazzo.edublogs.org%2F2011%2F04%2F17%2Fvery-useful-articles-on-motivation%2F'; addthis_title = 'Very+Useful+Articles+On+Motivation'; addthis_pub = ''; […]

  4. kelli
    June 25, 2011

    I am an English teacher, just completed a phd and am now lecturing at a university. I am 30 years old and am only just now feeling motivated again by a desire to learn more about maths. Also, ironically although I teach English, it is only in the last two years I would sat I’ve rediscovered motivation to write.

    When did I lose interest in these things? Writing…in uni, in my undergraduate degree. Maths…in year 9. Drills and exercises killed it for me, and the lack of application (even to theory, like, how maths is a whole way to understand the world!)

    Just goes to show that even people who are passionate about learning and teaching can take lots of time too to bounce back from motivation death. Thanks for this post!

  5. NancyH
    June 25, 2011

    I think we start this tear-down process very early in school and I think it persists in ways that are part of the fabric to such an extent that we can’t even see them. We do calendar concepts and weather every day in K. We give students “busy work” for homework 4/5 nights every week. We underestimate the time homework will take on a regular basis and then don’t collect it. We keep tests secret and don’t let students keep them after they are finished and graded. If you think about it, most of the things we do that tear down student “constructions” are things that make OUR lives easier…hmmmm Wonder what that’s about…


Leave a Reply