Q: Is it possible to train students to be responsible, disciplined, self-controlled without relying on extrinsic motivators?
A: Yes, I agree with Dr. Montessori. She said,
“Discipline must come through liberty… How shall one obtain discipline in a class of free children? Certainly in our system, we have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. If discipline is founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined. We call an individual disciplined when he is master of himself, and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life. Such a concept of active discipline is not easy to comprehend or to apply. But certainly it contains a great educational principle, very different from the old-time absolute and undiscussed coercion to immobility.”
I babysat preschoolers for my mom’s Tuesday morning Bible study group a few years ago. The kids were allowed to play with any of the toys in our classroom, but the play of each toy was governed by a specific set of rules.
Bouncy ball: “Kids, you may play with the bouncy ball. However, you must obey all of the following rules. The ball may only be bounced in this specific place. If two of you want to pass back-and-forth, one of you must stand in this exact spot, the other in this exact spot. The ball must bounce at least once. You must pass with both hands. You must put the ball in its designated place when finished bouncing. You may not play with another toy until the ball is put away. If you break any of these rules, you will not be allowed to play with the ball again until next week.”
Empathize: “I know it’s fun to throw the ball like a crazy person.”
Explain: “…But it’s not safe indoors. You could hurt someone or break something. It makes the room chaotic and less fun for everyone else.”
Support: “You don’t have to bounce the ball if you’d rather do something else. If you get the ball first, you don’t have to share with anyone who asks. You may continue bouncing for as long as you’d like to continue bouncing. I’ll bounce it with you if you’d like.”
Puzzles: “Kids, you may play with any of the puzzles. However, you must obey all of the following rules. You must handle the puzzle boxes and pieces gently. The puzzle must stay on the table. You must return the puzzle pieces to the correct box when finished. You must return the puzzle boxes to the puzzle bin when finished. You may only play with one puzzle at a time. You may not play with another toy until your puzzle is put away. If you break any of these rules, you will not be allowed to play with the puzzles again until next week.”
Empathize: “I know it’s fun to play with the puzzles on the floor.”
Explain: “…But we want to keep the puzzles as nice as possible. If they’re on the floor, they’re more likely to get stepped on and ruined.”
Support: “You don’t have to play with the puzzles if you’d rather do something else. If you get the puzzle first, you don’t have to share with anyone who asks. You may continue puzzling for as long as you’d like to continue puzzling. I’ll puzzle with you if you want. Let’s start with the edges…”
The first few weeks were difficult. The rules had to be enforced consistently. It took time for the kids to develop self-control.
On week four, the following event took place.
A 4 year-old boy approached a 3 year-old girl and said, “Are you putting that puzzle away? You can leave it out. I want to do it now.” The 3 year-old girl didn’t even look at him. I said, “It’s okay, girly. You can leave it out for him.” The 3 year-old girl didn’t even look at me. She was so focused on what she was doing, I wasn’t even sure she’d heard us.
She continued to clean her puzzle. She put the pieces in the box. She put the box in the bin. She stared at the bin for two seconds. She reached back into the bin. She removed the puzzle she had just placed inside. She promptly handed the puzzle to the 4 year-old boy, and went off to play with something else.
She wouldn’t break the rules even after I had given her permission! Kids love structure (it makes freedom enjoyable, calm, and peaceful). They want to know where things are supposed to be, and how, when, and why things are supposed to be done.
Most of the time, we don’t give them the structure they need. We tell them ‘what’, but not ‘how’, and then complain when they do it wrong. “Kids, you may play with the ball. Stop throwing it at poor Suzie! Stop bouncing it off the walls! Stop throwing it out the doorway! Stop yelling when you throw! Stop running! This is your last warning! This is your last, last warning! I mean it! I’m going to write your name on the board! If you get 3 strikes next to your name you’ll be in hot water!”
Is this method full-proof? No, even Dr. Montessori acknowledged it wouldn’t work for everyone.
Is this method easy? No, it can be very difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming.
Is this method worth the effort? Yes, working with classes of intrinsically motivated students is sublime. Most teachers don’t get to experience it on a regular basis. I enjoy it multiple times per week.
Q: Aren’t extrinsic motivators the core of motivation sometimes?
A: Yes, but not all motivations are created equally.
Motivation exists on a continuum. Extrinsic motivation (motivation to do something as a means to an end) has been consistently linked with lower quality learning, enjoyment, and creativity, higher levels of stress, and increased likelihood of burn-out. Intrinsic motivation (motivation to do something for its own sake) has been consistently linked with higher quality learning, enjoyment, creativity, and continuing motivation. Intrinsically motivated students are more likely to adopt their coach’s values (exercise is important), avoid burn-out and participate in sports for longer periods of time, develop healthier relationships with classmates, and have more fun. The closer students move towards the intrinsically motivated end of the motivation continuum, the more enjoyable the learning process will be for everyone involved.
Are there times when I use extrinsic motivators? Yes, sometimes the kids are doing something dangerous I have to stop immediately, or they’re doing something annoying I want to stop immediately.
Have fun with the kids! Give them structure, freedom, and support. They will love and obey you (eventually)!
Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23)
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