Sample Essay: Motivation in the Primary Years

We continue our series of sample essays from Today we’re publishing a sample essay about motivation in the primary years of our lives.

An ouline:

  1. Introduction. What is motivation and what is the role of motivation in the education process?
  2. Children’s motivation and its particularities.
  3. The intrisic and extrinsic motivation.
  4. How to use the psychology of motivation in school?
  5. How do parents can use the psychologhy of motivation?
  6. Conclusion.

A foreword:

Each action needs its own motivation, id est., the explanation of its benefits or necessity of doing it, at least, the similar actions can require the one motivation (the motivation, which was felt once a life, in childhood). That’s why the period of childhood is so important in the context of human actions, motivations and behaviour. It is obvious, that the child is the human being, who has more questions that all another parts of mankind, so that before each action or concerning each subject the child has hundreds of questions. If the motivation of some action or event is explained to him, he can remember it and extrapolate this example to similar situations, but he’ll never start to do something without knowing the goals and benefits of it.

Until recently, research on children’s school motivation has focused primarly on influences from parents, with some attention given to teachers. However, researchers have become increasingly aware of the important role of one’s peers for both school adjustment and achievement[i]. Therefore, an increasing amount of research emphasizing peer influences has been conducted. Currently, the research suggests that parents, teachers, and peers provide unique influences on children’s developing school motivation: Parents for children’s values and beliefs about school and peers for children’s everday classroom behaviours. Those links that emphasize peer influences are indicated with a star.

Infants and young children appear to be propelled by curiosity, driven by an intense need to explore, interact with, and make sense of their environment. As one author puts it, “Rarely does one hear parents complain that their pre-schooler is “unmotivated”[ii].

Unfortunately, as children grow, their passion for learning frequently seems to shrink. Learning often becomes associated with drudgery instead of delight. A large number of children – more than one in four – leave school before graduating. Many more are physically present in the classroom but largely mentally absent; they fail to invest themselves fully in the experience of learning. Awareness of how children’s attitudes and beliefs about learning develop and what facilitates learning for its own sake can assist educators in reducing student apathy. Children’s motivation naturally has to do with children’s desire to participate in the learning process. But it also concerns the reasons or goals that underlie their involvement or noninvolvement in academic activities. Although children may be equally motivated to perform a task, the sources of their motivation may differ.

Because the value of school tasks is not immediate, it is essential that children develop an ability – indeed, an understanding – of postponing gratification. This is a fundamental coping mechanism whose failing to master will, inevitably, impact the child negatively throughout adolescence.

While there is no doubt that this goal is quite a difficult task for young children because of the intensity of their instinctual drives and because their concept of the past and the future is not fully developed, postponement of immediate gratification can be developed. Children who basically trust their parents will have trust in the future because their parents say so even if the concept “future” is quite hazy. Trust in one’s parent is the outcome of a warm parent-child relationship, when promises are scrupulously kept and when parents offer rewards with their demands. Such rewards need not, of course, be material ones. A sense of well-being, warmth, physical and emotional contact, a smile or look, more than suffice. Needless to say, such training should be gradual, with ever increasing periods of time between need and gratification. Of course, a warm parent-child relationship is in itself gratifying and can “take over” when the real gratification is in the distant future.

Much of what has been said about the home can be applied in school, too. Teachers know very well that “success breeds success.” They should, however, make it possible for all children to be successful. This may call for many and repeated adjustments in curriculum planning for a class as a whole and for the individual child.

Why do the very same children who clamored for homework in first grade and loved those little assignments come to loathe it later on? Obviously, if homework tasks would be introduced ever so gradually, with a likelihood that the child can do the work at home, the child could not develop such an aversion to it so soon. So it is with most school tasks. Lack of motivation and aversion to school tasks come about when tasks are too difficult, when success is unlikely, and when learning is then heaped upon earlier learning which never did take place adequately. Thus the child who lost out earlier in his school career rarely ever catches up.

More effort is needed to locate the child’s level of achievement at the time when instruction is to take place and then introduce the slightly more difficult task – one that can be mastered with just a little more effort.

It is said that frogs have been boiled alive when the temperature of the water they were in was raised ever so slowly. Can then our children not be put into a comfortable environment and, when the “heat must be put on,” can this not be done in a slow and painless fashion?[iii]

Children’s motivation naturally has to do with children’s desire to participate in the learning process. But it also concerns the reasons or goals that underlie their involvement or noninvolvement in academic activities. Although children may be equally motivated to perform a task, the sources of their motivation may differ.

A child who is intrinsically motivated undertakes an activity “for its own sake, for the enjoyment it provides, the learning it permits, or the feelings of accomplishment it evokes”. An extrinsically motivated child performs “in order to obtain some reward or avoid some punishment external to the activity itself,” such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval[iv].

The term motivation to learn has a slightly different meaning. It is defined by one author as “the meaningfulness, value, and benefits of academic tasks to the learner – regardless of whether or not they are intrinsically interesting”. Another notes that motivation to learn is characterized by long-term, quality involvement in learning and commitment to the process of learning[v].

Intrinsic means innate or within; hence intrinsic motivation is the stimulation or drive stemming from within oneself. In relation to learning, one is compelled to learn by a motive to understand, originating from their own curiosity. Intrinsic motivation is often associated with intrinsic rewards because the natural rewards of a task are the motivating forces that encourage an individual in the first place.

We learn to throw darts by seeing how close the dart is to the target; learn to type by seeing the right letters appear on the computer screen; learn to cook from the pleasant sights, fragrances, and flavors that result from our culinary efforts; learn to read from the understanding we get from the printed word; and learn to solve puzzles by finding solutions.

The basic idea behind intrinsic motivation and intrinsic rewards is that learning, both searching for answers and finding those answers, is reinforcing in itself. And children are the most curious, naturally driven learners on the face of this Earth. This is why an intrinsically motivating classroom works: it is utilizing the natural learning energy of children. It is our society’s emphasis on grades that deteriorates this natural intrinsic motivation in children by the time they reach the end of elementary school are just one example of an extrinsic reward. Others, such as tokens or praise, are the flip side to this debate. Regardless of bias, experts agree that intrinsic rewards are by far the most successful reinforcers because they teach on their own. The problem lies in children who do not recognize their own sources of intrinsic motivation. This is where the role of the teacher comes in with the use of management methods which tap into children’s natural motivation.

Motivation to learn is a competence acquired “through general experience but stimulated most directly through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or socialization by significant others (especially parents and teachers).[vi]

Children’s home environment shapes the initial constellation of attitudes they develop toward learning. When parents nurture their children’s natural curiosity about the world by welcoming their questions, encouraging exploration, and familiarizing them with resources that can enlarge their world, they are giving their children the message that learning is worthwhile and frequently fun and satisfying.

When children are raised in a home that nurtures a sense of self-worth, competence, autonomy, and self-efficacy, they will be more apt to accept the risks inherent in learning. Conversely, when children do not view themselves as basically competent and able, their freedom to engage in academically challenging pursuits and capacity to tolerate and cope with failure are greatly diminished.

Once children start school, they begin forming beliefs about their school-related successes and failures. The sources to which children attribute their successes (commonly effort, ability, luck, or level of task difficulty) and failures (often lack of ability or lack of effort) have important implications for how they approach and cope with learning situations.

The beliefs teachers themselves have about teaching and learning and the nature of the expectations they hold for students also exert a powerful influence. “To a very large degree, students expect to learn if their teachers expect them to learn.”[vii]

Schoolwide goals, policies, and procedures also interact with classroom climate and practices to affirm or alter students’ increasingly complex learning-related attitudes and beliefs.

And developmental changes comprise one more strand of the motivational web. For example, although young children tend to maintain high expectations for success even in the face of repeated failure, older students do not. And although younger children tend to see effort as uniformly positive, older children view it as a “double-edged sword”. To them, failure following high effort appears to carry more negative implications–especially for their self-concept of ability–than failure that results from minimal or no effort.

Although children’s motivational histories accompany them into each new classroom setting, it is essential for teachers to view themselves as “active socialisation agents capable of stimulating… children’s motivation to learn”[viii].

Classroom climate is important. If children’s experience the classroom as a caring, supportive place where there is a sense of belonging and everyone is valued and respected, they will tend to participate more fully in the process of learning.

Various task dimensions can also foster motivation to learn. Ideally, tasks should be challenging but achievable. Relevance also promotes motivation, as does “contextualising” learning, that is, helping students to see how skills can be applied in the real world. Tasks that involve “a moderate amount of discrepancy or incongruity” are beneficial because they stimulate students’ curiosity, an intrinsic motivator.

In addition, defining tasks in terms of specific, short-term goals can assist students to associate effort with success. Verbally noting the purposes of specific tasks when introducing them to students is also beneficial.

Extrinsic rewards, on the other hand, should be used with caution, for they have the potential for decreasing existing intrinsic motivation.

What takes place in the classroom is critical, but “the classroom is not an island”. Depending on their degree of congruence with classroom goals and practices, schoolwide goals either dilute or enhance classroom efforts. To support motivation to learn, school-level policies and practices should stress “learning, task mastery, and effort” rather than relative performance and competition.[ix]

Children usually come to school with an apparently innate motivation to succeed scholastically. This can be seen in their eagerness to imitate their elders even when this entails a good deal of exertion. Parents and teachers can help develop and sustain such motivations. Several factors are involved. Initiative is the first of these and implies training the child to be independent, active and responsible for his actions. Some effort and accompanying frustrations play an important role. An adequate measure of success is necessary if the effort is to be repeated. Thus tasks should be just within reach with some effort.

Parents need to help children develop an ability to postpone gratification; that is to do tasks now for reward in the future. This can be accompanied by gradually delaying gratification. A truly warm parent-child relationship is essential. Children identify with their parents by imitating them. Parents should thus be adequate models, reasonable in their expectations, and consistent in their own beliefs and values[x].

The school can help by first presenting the child with tasks that he can do with some effort but are not way beyond them. Thereafter task-difficulty should be ever so slowly increased. The curriculum must be flexible enough to provide tasks at multiple levels as each child’s need demands. And teachers need flexibility to experiment, small classes to know each child’s ability, and sufficient time to provide all this for our young.

All this may sound like a tall order. It is, however, quite cheap and certainly worthwhile when one compares it to the heartaches, the failures, the wasted man hours and lives, which come about when one’s scholastic career was an unwelcome burden, where little learning actually took place.

[i] “Psychology for Teachers” – by Fontana D., 1995.

[ii] “Motivation in Education: Theory, Research and Applications” – by Pintrich P. & Schunk D., 1996.

[iii] “Achievement Motivation” – by Dr. Jacob Mermelstein, 1998.

[iv] “Psychology Applied to Teaching” – by Biehler R. & Snowman J., 1997.

[v] “The Rewards of Learning” – by Chance, P., 1992..

[vi] “Effects of Rewards on Children’s Prosocial Motivation: A Socialisation Study” – by Fabes R., (1989).

[vii] “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards” – by Lepper M., Greene D., & Nisbett R., 1973.

[viii] “Looking in Classrooms” – by Good T. & Brophy J., 2000.

[ix] “What Do Students Want (and What Really Motivates Them)?” – by Strong R., Silver H. & Robinson A., 1995.

[x] “Psychology and the Teacher” – by Child D., 1993.

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