Students Deserve a Culture of Rigor AND Intrinsic Motivation

Learning, PreK-12

In my previous article, I pointed out that what appears to be a forced choice between better test scores and 21st century skills and dispositions is actually a false dichotomy. I classified students according to high or low achievement and high or low ownership of their learning to demonstrate three paths to achieving both.

A quick recap of that classification follows:

Resigners are students who have low academic achievement and little or no ownership of their learning. They have resigned from school either mentally or physically.

Hobbyists are students who have complete ownership of their learning, but apply it to non-academic areas. They may be gamers or makers or coders, but outside their passion they have little academic achievement.

Compliers are the “good” students who get good grades and follow the rules. They may be low in engagement and self-direction, but they comply with the expectations placed on them by teachers and parents to excel academically.

Scholars are students who apply the passion and self-direction of the hobbyist to academic learning, developing both content knowledge and career skills.

balance MQ copy-2

There are three paths to shifting students from Resigners to Scholars.

  1. Add rigor to move first to the Complier quadrant, then activate intrinsic motivation to move to the right to the Scholar quadrant.
  2. Balance increased rigor with activated intrinsic motivation to move diagonally straight to the Scholar quadrant.
  3. Activate intrinsic motivation to move from the Resigner quadrant to the Hobbyist quadrant, and then add rigor to move to the scholar quadrant.

I intend to argue for the middle (2nd) path.

It takes time to increase test scores and it takes time to increase ownership. Often years. Students deserve to have both as quickly as it is feasible, which means pursuing both in parallel and with balance – the middle path.

In a TEDx talk last year, I made the argument that self-organizing teams are more effective at achieving the goals of an organization, than those that are controlled hierarchically. The difference is one of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I also made the argument that this applies to both parenting and education.

When looking at student hobbies, we see young people deeply engaged in activities they are passionate about and spending hours and hours of their free time practicing their craft. With the advent of the Internet, these students also participate in communities of interest with those who share their passion. They are driven in their desire to learn new things and to share their work to write, read, analyze, and celebrate online with their communities. In gaming, in particular, the random number generation aspect of the games leads to very high level scientific argumentation and mathematical discussion.

The middle path requires three elements to be in place:

  • Process improvement systems that use data to continually inform and improve instruction;
  • Pedagogies that foster intrinsic motivation;
  • A caring environment where every child is known.

For an example of excellent process improvement, look to Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s book Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools. This book pragmatically spells out a process centered around the Principal as an instructional leader and coach for teachers. It recommends the principal to have 30-minute meetings with each teacher regularly to look at data, analyze what students aren’t understanding, and develop an action plan. The important part here is to look at the data in several different ways to see things such as:

  • Are there some questions every student misses?
  • Is there a clear difference between the questions the high performers and low performers can answer?
  • Are there specific students that seem to be missing prerequisite knowledge or skills?
  • And so on…

The book is supplemented by videos like this one that gives concrete examples of the recommendations.

To understand intrinsic motivation, look to Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. For a quick overview, check out his TED talk here. Pink identifies a number of highly counterintuitive research results about extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments):

  • Rewards don’t make us happy. The average time that even a lottery winner experiences a higher level of happiness is approximately 3 months.
  • Rewards/Punishments are effective when applied to rote work such as memorizing the multiplication table, but when it comes to work that requires higher order thinking, creativity, or problem solving, extrinsic motivators actually decrease performance.
  • When people are rewarded for things they love to do (such as rewarding a student who loves to read for every book he/she finishes) they actually stop loving it and focus on the reward instead – making the activity feel like a chore.

Dan Pink also identifies the three elements that must be in place in order for intrinsic motivation to be activated:

  • Increased Mastery
  • Increased Autonomy
  • Meaning or Purpose

For an example of a caring environment where every child is known, look no further than San Diego’s High Tech High whose premise, before instruction of any kind, is that every child in the building will be truly known by at least one adult. HtH has a diverse population yet 98% of their graduates go on to college.

It is important to remember that schools as a place of learning are also a place of work. In order for students to embrace both rigor and intrinsic motivation, it must be modeled in the workplace. Consider an educator’s work environment where:

  • Teachers participate in a rigorous improvement process that continually challenges and enhances their mastery of their craft.
  • Teachers have the autonomy to make decisions about how to teach and collectively about what constitutes excellence.
  • Teachers have a shared purpose of making their building one where every child is known, cared for, achieving, and intrinsically motivated.

This is an environment where teachers have ownership and mastery.

The shrill divide in the education conversation that pits high test scores against self-direction has created an either-or atmosphere. But students deserve a both-and approach. Students deserve a culture of rigor and intrinsic motivation. Students deserve the opportunity to excel without artificial obstacles. Let’s provide students with what they need and deserve.

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Marie Bjerede

Marie Bjerede

Marie Bjerede is Founder of e-Mergents. Follow Marie on Twitter at @mbjerede.


Philip Kovacs /

I love this piece! I would make the tiny suggestion of replacing the word rigor with the word vigor.

It’s a tiny tweak, but if you look into the definitions, I think you will see that one is more suited for learning and creating the type of spaces you are outlining here.