American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Motivation: Every Teacher’s Wish for Her Students

My only clear memory of studying for my Master of Arts in Teaching degree – this was longer ago than you’ve probably been alive – is my ah-ha! moment of realizing that much more emphasis was being given to motivating pupils than to teaching content. After I became a classroom teacher, I definitely “got” the importance of motivation. Let’s face it: If your charges lack motivation to learn, you’re dead in the water.

The quest for sustainable learning drives a reigning characteristic of American education: the ceaseless attention paid to doing something, anything, to get students to actually want to learn the material. Or at least to pay attention!

The need for some level of motivation underlies the often creative efforts of American teachers to make learning fun – or (stated with a bit more refinement) to compel student engagement. QUESTION: When was the last time your young child had a teacher who did not talk with conviction about pupil enjoyment? And if you ever did have such a teacher, didn’t you at least consider requesting a transfer?

Psychologists investigating student engagement have drawn a distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation. Consider Suzy, a student:

  • Intrinsic motivation is when “Suzy herself wants to…” Not “teacher wants Suzy to…,” nor “parents want Suzy to…,” nor “threats drive Suzy to…” Intrinsic motivation, bubbling up inside Suzy, is ideal. If Suzy’s teacher can somehow ignite Suzy’s curiosity about, say, math, then a brilliant teacher she is!
  • Extrinsic motivation is when “parents want Suzy to…” or “threats drive Suzy to…,” etc. Someone or something outside of Suzy is pushing or enticing her to learn although, deep inside, she’d rather not. Extrinsic motivation is not ideal but, we all agree, might be needed so Suzy learns at least some mathematics.

Let’s step back and notice a few things:

Everything we’ve been discussing is framed in terms of what we educators can do. We professionals will make it happen. Suzy or Johnny is the passive subject of our efforts, becoming intrinsically or merely extrinsically motivated, or lacking motivation, largely because of us.

We, the educators, are responsible not only for their learning of the material, but also for their motivation to learn it.

And because this is America, we educators also are responsible for encouraging our pupils’ creativity, self-expression, and independent thinking – and sometimes even for differentiating our instruction to gratify each one’s unique “learning style.”

Because this is America?

Right. Much of rest of the world doesn’t share our views about teachers’ responsibilities. And from one world region we have a mountain of research findings, collected over 40+ years, that shine a bright light on an alternative way. That region is East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea.

In East Asia, teachers have two responsibilities:

  1. To carefully prepare and expertly deliver instruction that guides students’ mastery of the material.
  2. To help shape the students’ values and behavior towards becoming a virtuous human being.

(That second responsibility is unlike anything here in America – at least in our public schools – so let’s sidestep it for now.)

Notice the focus of the first responsibility: It’s about coherent content, skillfully presented. Researchers describe East Asian lessons as being “polished.” Instruction, they say, is often more like a “performance.” There are many accounts of teachers routinely collaborating on lesson design and improvement (they have far more in-school prep time than American teachers).

Equally important, East Asian educators are not responsible for…

  • motivating students to learn,
  • encouraging student creativity,
  • drawing out their self-expression,
  • matching each one’s “learning style.”

As I perused hundreds of studies comparing East Asia and America, I gradually realized that children over there are more receptive to school learning than children over here. To explain why is the reason I wrote The Drive to Learn.

Here’s why: East Asian families feel responsible for each child’s school learning. For reasons grounded in history and culture, each child’s mastery of academic material is a top family priority. Members feel emotionally committed to – passionate about – learning. Affected are their values, attitudes, activities, and behavior including use of time. Consequently, East Asian children arrive at the classroom door in a more receptive frame of mind.

But wait. That’s extrinsic motivation: “parents want Suzy to…” Right?

No – which brings us to a fascinating finding from the research. The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic collapses in East Asia. The drive to learn is so central to a family’s self-concept that it’s naturally inside each child.

Yes, motivation is every American teacher’s wish for her students. But she can’t count on it, so she must accept responsibility for bringing it about. That’s what my wise M.A.T. professors were preparing me for.

Motivation need not be an East Asian teacher’s wish. Most of her students can be counted on to be receptive to instruction. So she has far more leeway to guide and build their mastery of the content.