What really motivates students?: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Visitors to Schechter Manhattan often comment to me about how engaged and happy students appear.  They notice how the students are busy at work, focused on the learning activities at hand.  Sometimes I am asked, what motivates our students?  Why do they choose to do hard things in order to learn?

Motivating students, and people, in general, is a challenge faced by all educators, and Schechter Manhattan is no exception.  After all, our students don’t get a choice about whether they come to school, the adults in their lives insist.  And, at Schechter Manhattan, like at most schools, we adults have made decisions about what content, concepts, skills, and values to include in the curriculum of study- things we think are really important and expect all students to learn.  Add to that our approach to assessment and reporting, which includes lots of feedback but no grades or other such external motivators, and the question becomes even sharper.  What motivates students to try?

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink reviews social science research on motivation and concludes that people are internally driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy means having voice and choice in what we do.  At Schechter Manhattan, even as we have a prescribed curriculum, we implement the teaching with many opportunities for students to choose what and how they go about the learning.  A guiding principle of differentiating instruction is that students are diverse, across skills, learning profiles, and interests, and as such, they need different ways to engage their learning.  In differentiated classrooms, students are given choices of how to learn (Do you want to talk to a  partner or write your thoughts about this?), what to learn (Design your own experiment about how bacteria grow- on door handles? clothes? food?  Choose a book to read about something you are passionate about- history?  science?  football?), and how to show what they learned (Do you want to make a presentation?  Write a story?  Paint a picture?).  When students are given choice, we tap into their natural motivation to be autonomous.

Mastery means working hard to achieve a goal.  At Schechter Manhattan, we teach students to set goals, self-reflect and track their progress.  Students select, collect and reflect on samples of their work in an annual portfolio assessment cycle.  They are supported through a process of analyzing their progress, identifying their strengths and challenges, noting the progress they have made, and articulating the goals they want to achieve.  I remember many times I had the pleasure of being the faculty member participating in a student-led portfolio conference, with students who both noted things they wanted to do better and expressed a sense of motivation and responsibility that filled their parents (and me) with tremendous pride.  When students are encouraged to develop a growth mindset and practice self-reflection, they are internally motivated to work to achieve hard things.

Purpose means working towards some greater objective larger than ourselves.  At Schechter Manhattan we are committed to the idea that school work should be interesting and worthwhile.  School should be in the service of nurturing knowledge, skills, and dispositions that have authentic value.  The work of the Lieberman Family STEAM Center is a great example, bringing real-world problems to students so that they can think about design solutions.  When students reach out to “clients,” people who work in fields related to a problem they are working on, to hear their perspectives and needs, the meaningfulness of the learning activity is enriched.  Or, in the Schechter Manhattan tfilah curriculum, when students are asked to think about what the words of the siddur mean to them and to add their own drawings and writing to their personal siddurim, they are enculturated to the idea that tfilah should mean something relevant to their lives.  And when students see that their school work has a real impact on them and the world, they are motivated by purpose.

We have found that instruction that taps this powerful combination of internal motivators leads to highly engaged, hard-working students- young people who are self-motivated to pursue their passions and achieve at high levels.

Shabbat Shalom.

Benjamin Mann