La Canada High School is a very academically rigorous school, and because of this high-achieving school culture, it is known for producing students who do very well in terms of their grades. But that’s not all there is to it when it comes to whether enough has been done at LCHS to ensure the success of the students. After all, the purpose of high school isn’t only to teach students core concepts, but to prepare them for college and (hopefully) their adult lives.
In that sense, the motivations behind the successes among LCHS students are important. It’s great if a student is doing well in Biology and Spanish, but if they want to become a lawyer, those classes will be largely useless to them. However, if a student becomes successful in these classes due to some underlying mindset or hard-working attitude that they develop in high school, those traits will be able to benefit them no matter where their life takes them.
When it comes to our motives for doing things, there are two main ways in which we are driven to do certain things. The first is intrinsic motivation. When someone is intrinsically motivated, they find an act rewarding in itself, typically out of a sense of enjoyment. Typically that means it is less about competition and how others are doing, and more about how much personal satisfaction or gain comes from a task.
This is very different from extrinsic motivation, where an action is caused by the desire for some sort of recognition. In other words, being extrinsically motivated is being motivated by a reward like good grades, money, or fame. Extrinsic motivation also includes a desire to avoid punishment in some situations. Thus, while intrinsic motivation is a desire that comes from within, extrinsic motivation is more based on what others think- when it comes to school, that can be fellow students, teachers, and (perhaps most significantly when discussing students at LCHS) parents.
These terms are ones that most people are at least somewhat familiar with, and when they are brought up and discussed, intrinsic motivation usually has a more positive connotation. It’s not hard to see why. A 2014 study by Yale psychology professor Amy Wrzesniewski looked at 11,320 West Point military cadets, assessing their motivations for attending the academy. By the end, they saw a clear trend: the cadets who were initially found to be more intrinsically motivated were more likely to graduate, become commissioned officers, receive promotions, and stay in the military. In essence, success became much more likely the more the student was personally motivated. This also makes logical sense, because if you enjoy doing something, you’ll probably work harder to get better at it and put more time into it, whereas if you only care about a reward or a punishment, when those factors are removed, your motivation will be as well.
However, it also should be noted that the fact that intrinsic motivation can be beneficial doesn’t necessarily invalidate extrinsic motivation. First of all, no person can be wholly intrinsically motivated. Perhaps in one specific endeavor or situation, someone will do something purely because they like it, but in life, we can’t be passionate about everything we do. It’s also often the case that intrinsic and extrinsic motives intermingle. For example, if I worked as an artist, I may do it because I want to create a great piece of art, and I may enjoy what I do. But that doesn’t change the fact that I still work as an artist, and thus my livelihood depends on the paintings I produce, so there is also the desire to finish the art so that I can make money off of it.
Furthermore, keeping a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic drives is not only necessary, but important. If we only valued intrinsic motivation, we would not be able to effectively complete the many tasks we need to complete over the course of our lives. A student who only works hard when it comes to the things they are passionate about may not do as well in school, because there is a wide variety of subjects and concepts that they must learn that may not appeal to them. Therefore, working for a good grade or some other reward may be helpful. This isn’t just restricted to school: for instance, if a boss asks something of you and you don’t want to do it, you can’t just refuse if you want to stay employed. But with that being said, there is understandably a focus on promoting intrinsic motivation because in many (and perhaps most) cases, people are more subject to extrinsic drives than intrinsic ones, and being self-motivated allows for much deeper understanding of a particular topic, as well as more patience when learning it.
This seems to be the case at LCHS. Although it may not have been very clear before the pandemic, distance learning seems to have shone a spotlight on the true nature of our students. If one were to enter a Zoom classroom on any given day, they would most likely be greeted by a silent, uninviting wall of silent pictures, with a lone teacher desperately trying to elicit some sort of reaction (unless, of course, the teacher mandates cameras to be on). All too often, students only write down what they are required to write down, only participate when they need to participate, only attend the meetings they are required to attend. In addition, grades have plummeted since the pandemic began, which could in part be attributed to the fact that the quality of education can’t be as high due to the restrictions of online learning, but also must be attributed to the fact that teachers can’t as easily enforce whether work is being done, and the general lack of care that comes with a lack of structure to students’ days, as seen by the increase in procrastination and the decrease in test scores (which are now more reliant than ever on independent studying).
So what can be done? A research paper written by Serbian professor Marina Matejevic that examines the work of prominent psychologists R.J. Sternberg and T.I. Lubart argues that a crucial aspect of the motivation of an individual is the aims of the motivator (i.e. the person who instructs them to do a certain task). If the motivator is enthusiastic and focuses on the task at hand, the individual will likely be more intrinsically motivated, whereas if the motivator emphasizes the reward for the task, it will create more of an extrinsically driven individual (at least when they are performing that specific task).
Other researchers back this claim up with their studies. For instance, psychologists M.R. Lepper, D. Green and R.E. Nisbett studied children who spent their time drawing during a designated free play period. With one group of children, they showed a certificate and said the children could only earn one by drawing something. With the other group of children, they asked the children to draw, and then surprised them with a certificate. When they observed the children two weeks later, the ones who were surprised by the reward were spending more time drawing during their free time than those who were motivated by the promise of a reward.
Another example comes from Edward Deci (a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester) and his book Why We Do What We Do, where at one point he gave two groups a puzzle to solve, giving the first group money for solving it, and not rewarding the second group with anything. Afterward, he secretly watched the two groups, and noticed that the second group kept playing, while the first group stopped, as giving them money for completing the task had turned it into a job rather than a recreational activity.
While it is clear that intrinsic motivation has more positive results, extrinsic motivation is an unavoidable part of life and academics, since there are a wide range of requirements when it comes to graduating that cannot be changed. To maximize engagement and future success, teachers should try to reduce the emphasis on a reward and make it more about the task, but LCHS is definitely not alone in the prevalence of reward-based motivation. Students also have a role in this, and the important thing is to balance these two types, doing what is necessary as well as finding things you enjoy, especially when education has the lenient structure it has today.