Manipulation by Motivation

Two words. More specifically, two nouns, both starting with the letter M. When stripped of their -tion suffixes, they become two verbs. To manipulate. To motivate. The former packed with all sorts of negative connotations. Getting manipulated feels icky. We feel used. While the latter sounds promising. We feel inspired. But, what if I posited that there’s not as big of a difference between the two words as it appears?

I hope we can all agree that manipulation doesn’t belong in a classroom. It is morally and ethically questionable, if not objectionable. But what does manipulation even look like in the classroom? Probably not what you’d think. In fact, you might not recognize it at all. Manipulation circulates the classroom clad in its clever little disguise...veiled control cloaked in praise.

The class is loud, and a bit chaotic. Students are talking, laughing, and being silly—just as kids do. Suddenly a voice cuts through it all. “I like how Sarah is sitting so quietly.” This is manipulation--I am going to get these other kids to behave by seeking my approval. Sarah has my approval. Don’t you want it? Maybe you should sit quietly like she is. You’ll get my approval once you’re doing what I want you to do. I call it manipulation not because it is praising Sarah. I’m all for praising Sarah, or any child for that matter. It is manipulation because it is false praise that is not authentically meant for Sarah at all.

As teachers, our approval shouldn’t be contingent upon a student bending to our will. Do we have to “approve” of every behavior or decision a student makes? Of course not. But whether a student makes the right choice or the wrong choice, they shouldn’t be doing it for the teacher’s approval anyway. In my class, I hope they’re not doing it for me. I hope my students make the right choices because...well, they are the right choices! That leads us to our second M word.

Why do kids make the choices they make? What motivates students? This is where things get a little hairy. Motivation is not as clear cut as manipulation. We know that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is kind of like that itch that we desperately want to scratch. I’m facing some sort of problem or dilemma, an itch in this case, and I’m going to seek an answer or solution to this problem--scratching the itch. We as human beings have a natural inclination and desire to solve problems. We’re born with it. If I tell my wife that my leg is itching, she doesn’t have to offer me a sticker, a treat, a high-five, or any other reward to scratch it. I am intrinsically motivated to scratch that itch, and I am going to scratch it until it’s gone. I am going to completely and proficiently work on that problem until it’s solved. I will give it my very best effort! (Had enough of the itch analogy? Got it! I’ll move on).

Extrinsic motivation, obviously, comes from someone or something else. Those rewards I spoke of earlier would be examples of extrinsic motivation. Simply put, if a person does something, she gets something. Furthermore, punitive consequences can also be a form of extrinsic motivation. Think about a student who doesn’t complete his work. Now he has to stay in at recess. His motivation is clear: if he does something (his work), he gets something (recess). We have turned recess into a reward. There are countless examples of extrinsic motivation in a classroom: behavior charts, stickers, extra free time, losing free time, extra recess, losing recess, no homework, extra homework, table points, and most of all...GRADES. Grades are the biggest form of extrinsic motivation. If a person does something, she gets something.

My contention is that, like manipulation, extrinsic motivation does not belong in a classroom. In fact, I’ll take it further and say that extrinsic motivation is manipulation. If a person does something, she gets something. In the manipulation example from earlier, Sarah did something and she got the teacher’s approval. The teacher’s approval was the reward. We could have substituted any of our examples of extrinsic motivation into the manipulation scenario; I’ll venture a guess that you’ve seen some teachers do just that.

The room is loud and chaotic. A group of boys is joking and laughing. Sarah sits quietly at the next table. In our earlier example, the teacher praised Sarah, but she could have easily picked from the grab bag of extrinsic motivators. She could have turned the boys’ cards on a behavior chart. She could have written the boys’ names on the board. She could have given Sarah a sticker. She could have taken recess away from the boys. She could have given Sarah’s table a point toward a pizza party at the end of the week. She could have taken participation points away from the boys in her gradebook. Now we can see that any one of these extrinsic motivators is just a way of manipulating one’s behavior.

So what? Why value intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation? Moral and ethical concerns aside, research actually shows that intrinsic motivation leads to higher productivity and better performance. Without getting too deep into the weeds, one reason for this possibly surprising outcome is that when people are offered a reward to do something, they tend to focus more on the reward than the very task they are asked to complete. Another reason is that they will do the bare minimum in order to receive the reward.

Uh-oh, my leg is feeling itchy again. Sorry to go back to the itch example, I know I thought we were done with it too, but I think it works so well. When I am intrinsically motivated to scratch my itch, I am going to scratch it quickly and effectively until that itch is gone. I will use just the right amount of pressure in just the right scratching pattern and adjust as necessary. If somehow, I were able to transfer that itch to someone else’s leg, we’ll call him Jim, my motivation would be gone. I wouldn’t need to scratch at all. But, for this completely absurd example, let’s suppose Jim offered me $20 to scratch that same itch that’s now on his leg. I am now extrinsically motivated to scratch. But how many scratches? How hard and in what pattern? Rake to and fro or counter-clockwise swirls? Would I care if the itch is gone? No! This is Jim’s leg! I don’t want to scratch his leg any more than I have to. I’m scratching once quickly, grabbing my $20, and running! My itch, when scratched by someone intrinsically motivated, went away completely--the itch was the sole focus. Jim’s itch, when scratched by someone extrinsically motivated, might have gone away, but probably didn’t--the money took some of the focus away from the itch. Luckily, Jim’s a human with his own intrinsic motivation, and he can scratch his own leg--but I’m still keeping his $20!

Aside from being manipulative and leading to poorer performance, there is another reason extrinsic motivation doesn’t belong in the classroom. Those independent thinkers and lifelong learners that we all yearn to develop and foster in our classrooms are not made by extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation leads students to become dependent upon rewards. We condition them to rely on our approval, stickers, points, and grades to do anything. And soon, those same stickers and points aren’t going to be enough. We have to up the ante. Not only that, even if the rewards are successful in changing their behavior or getting students to complete tasks, the effects are only good as long as the rewards are being offered. Rewards are not teaching students to autonomously control their work ethic, behavior, and effort in the long run.

Lastly, extrinsic motivation can destroy a person’s intrinsic motivation. The longer a student is exposed to extrinsic motivation, the less control he feels he has on the outcomes of his circumstances. The person offering the rewards has all the control in the relationship. As this pattern continues over time, the student becomes disengaged, which has a deleterious effect on his intrinsic motivation. Think of the two types of motivation as dogs. Which one is going to survive? Easy. The one that we feed. Humans are born with the desire to explore, learn, solve problems, and succeed. This intrinsic motivation is a fire that burns from within. Being in a classroom where intrinsic motivation is fostered, you can feel the heat and energy from this fire. Sadly, we’ve also found a way to extinguish this fire and replace it with a cheap artificial replica. It’s like a house without a fireplace, so we use Netflix to stream a cold, lifeless digital version.

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