Just recently I’ve been thinking about what motivates secondary students to want to learn, and specifically the complex but important relationship between motivation/engagement and NCEA. So often we hear that kids won’t learn anything (in their senior secondary years) unless there will be a reward of credits for the effort they make. Pretty much every secondary teacher would recognise the truth in that and it’s so easy to stop there. End of story! There’s no point in saying it shouldn’t happen because it obviously does. But what should we do about it?
This came up as an issue when we recently looked back across the years of our NCEA research with six future-focused themes as an analytical frame (these themes are in Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching). The results of the analysis are outlined in a new report called NCEA and Curriculum Innovation.
One of the messages that came out of the analysis was how important it is that students are active partners in their learning, and want to keep learning of their own volition. When you say this though, it’s easy to read it as the opposite of motivation via credits (i.e. a simple binary between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation). But as we found when we applied the results of our analysis to three case studies of NCEA-related innovations, it’s not that simple.
For some students early success from worthwhile learning – i.e. the students know that what they are doing is of value to them and others – can be a “circuit-breaker” if their past learning history leads them to expect to fail yet again. Here a boost of extrinsic motivation precedes but can lead to more intrinsically motivated learning efforts. But how do we get that crossover more often? I’ve described how it happened in one specific set of circumstances (in the first of the case studies) but there must be other ways and I’d love to hear about them.
One thing I do know is we shouldn’t wait until the NCEA years to try and boost intrinsic motivation. In the longitudinal Competent Learners study, there was one smallish group of students who were in the lowest cognitive and/or attitudinal groups in the early primary years who went on the get Level 3 NCEA. The difference for them, compared to other kids who stayed on a less successful learning pathway, was that they had learned to persevere while still in primary school and by age 14 were in the top quartile for a number of markers of intrinsic motivation. The short report that describes this analysis is here.
In the recent Curriculum Innovation case studies, we also found an interesting but complex pattern of motivation for a group of more academic students. Yes they wanted to get merit or excellence for their research efforts (the extrinsic reward) but for them a lot of the appeal of the learning related to the engaging nature of the task itself and the “something more” that was demanded of them by the merit and excellence criteria in the subject’s newly aligned achievement standards. Again my wondering is this: in how many subjects/standards is this crossover from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation actually happening? And how do you leverage the potential for crossover so that many more students come to care more about the learning than the credits? Maybe a different sort of “circuit breaker” is needed here?