A Philosophy of Motivation

The 3 R’s of education (Readin’, Writin’, and ‘Rithmetic) have been around for a while. It bothered a lot of people that only one of them (Readin’) was a true R, so somebody finally came up with new Rs: Rigor, Relevance and Relationships.

Just as there have to be 3 R’s in education, there are at least three types of students. There are no blank slates sitting in the classroom; all come with pre-packaged personalities.

3 types of students, 3 methods of motivation. And because I know very little about philosophy, I have named each group after a school of philosophy. (Sorry, Socrates.)

Pragmatists are the first group. They are the accountants, the bean-counters, the point-grubbers. Highly motivated, the Pragmatists understand grades, even if they don’t understand Latin or calculus or whatever else you’re trying to teach them. They pay attention, ask questions, and appear to appreciate your efforts. They take notes. They do their homework.

Rigor is what Pragmatists respond to; they understand achievement, have a healthy sense of competition and self-discipline. They see themselves as successful and will work hard for grades. They understand the system and how to leverage it to their advantage.

You will notice that Pragmatists are always slightly anxious, worried that you might have overhauled your grading system last weekend or forgotten to add in the extra credit. It upsets them when you say things like, “II haven’t decided how many points this assignment will be worth.”

Pragmatists learn things not because knowledge is a good thing, or to become better people. They learn because they want points. You can, therefore, make things as rigorous as you like for these students. They want those points and will do whatever it takes.

The Fatalistic Hedonists are the second group. (Or the Hedonistic Fatalists, if you prefer.) The majority of students fall into this category. Some may be more fatalistic, others more hedonistic, but their basic philosophy of school is the same: students have little or no control.

The Fatalist says, “I am doomed, so I might as well ignore the whole thing and get on to what really matters: chilling, texting, and listening to loud music through my headphones.”

Fatalists hand in things when they think of it, but don’t have any long-term memory, they don’t understand cause and effect, and they may not be good at basic math. They don’t even try to understand grades. They are the ones who say, “I turned in my homework today. Do I have an A now?” They have no clue as to why they have a D. They are happy with a C.

Everything is tied to how they feel. They are moody, and obey their moods like the zodiac. If they feel that they’ve been conscientious (ie they’ve turned in HW for a couple days) they think they deserve a B. If they realize that they’ve been slacking, they don’t complain about the D. If by some miracle they have an A, they see it as fate, a gift from the gods.

Re-taking tests is the same; it’s like buying another lottery ticket. Why study?

Relevance may be their most effective motivator. The problem is finding what is relevant to them, prying open their curiosity about things beyond their friends, their phone, their music. It’s not impossible, but it does require some effort on the teacher’s part. If you can get into their minds, great things can happen.

What usually happens, though, is that teachers and parents manipulate their behavior with rewards and punishments. They will start handing in things because the consequences of not doing it are quite relevant to their lives. They will do their work if they can have their phone back.

Hedonists are a sub-variety of fatalists: While the fatalists are thinking that they will die when their grade card arrives in the mail tomorrow, the Hedonists are eating, drinking, and making merry. They are motivated by pleasure and fun, and though they avoid absorbing information, they may accidentally learn a lot. They are motivated exclusively by relevance: what relates to the moment they are in. If they are sick, or tired, or their best friend just stabbed them in the back, you can forget the lesson plan. Play a game instead.

Nihilists are the tough group. They already have decided that there is nothing at school for them, and won’t turn in even the easiest assignments. They may refuse to take tests, may sleep in class. Usually they won’t bother other students or talk out of turn.; they are almost completely tuned out.

Relationships are the only way to motivate a Nihilist. Conversations are necessary; you may get little reply at first, but keep trying. And keep your sense of humor — nothing turns them off faster than disapproval or nagging. They do not respond to rigor; they give up. They don’t respond much to relevance because school is irrelevant to them. Surprisingly, they are the group that most wants and needs you to like them.

Occasionally you will find a high achiever who doesn’t appear to fit any category. You may have discovered a true Philosopher: a lover of wisdom who learns things just because they are there to learn. If you encounter one of these rare birds, count yourself lucky. You may learn more from them than they will ever learn from you.


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