You have just finished teaching a lesson, and as you direct students to get started on their work, a familiar chorus echoes across the room, causing your heart to sink.

What do we get for doing this?

Do we have to do the whole thing?

Are we getting graded on this?

What happens if we don’t finish?

“Don’t these kids care?” you wonder. “Do they expect to get a prize or a treat for everything they do?” you grump. “What is the matter with kids these days?” you scoff.

What’s important to recognize about this dispiriting scene is that the children here are not at fault. They’re simply playing the game they’ve been taught to play. Having grown up in a school where gold stars and stickers are handed out for completing worksheets and grades are used to motivate good work, students have been conditioned to ask, “What do I get?” (or “What happens if I don’t?”) whenever a piece of work is presented.

What’s also important to recognize is that school does not have to feel like this. Reward and incentive systems are often used when we worry that the work itself isn’t worth doing. If the work itself is inherently interesting, fun, or rewarding, we wouldn’t need to dangle a carrot (or wield a stick), would we?

Some might argue that students simply aren’t motivated, but I believe that all kids want to learn and grow, even when they show attributes of laziness or disengagement. In fact, it could be that students’ school experiences have squelched their curiosity and drive. It’s no coincidence, I think, that many students display a diminishing zest for learning the further they get into their school careers. Shouldn’t that go in the opposite direction?!

Since I know that students are self-motivated when the conditions are right, it’s my job as a teacher to create the right conditions. One of the (many) ways to do that is through offering students choice about their learning. Even the simplest choices can help set the stage for students’ self-motivation to kick in.

Here’s a simple example: A class is practicing long multiplication. Instead of having all students complete the same practice page, the teacher gives students two options. The first is to use the practice page in the math book—picking and choosing the problems that are appropriately challenging (problems that give a little push but which are also doable). The second is to use a blank piece of paper to create their own appropriately challenging problems. Students who are still struggling with some of their basic math facts can craft problems that allow them to practice the skill of long multiplication without getting bogged down with 7×8. Students who can already multiply double digit numbers can create problems with four or five digits, allowing them to find a fun challenge to tackle.

Here’s another: A class is about to discuss a local environmental issue—the proposed construction of a new dam to produce hydroelectric power. To prepare for the discussion, students choose from several articles to explore, each sharing differing points of view. Students can select an article they find interesting—one that either supports or pushes back against their own viewpoints. They may also choose an article based on length or text complexity—allowing all students to self-differentiate their learning a bit.

With some choice about what and how they learn and with the opportunity to self-select appropriately challenging work, students are now more in control of their own learning. The message conveyed to students is clear: You’re already motivated to do cool work, so find something that works for you. You’re in charge of your learning.

Let’s be clear about something—there are still rewards at play here. Students feel the satisfaction of completing appropriately challenging math problems. Students gain a sense of ownership of viewpoints and feel intrinsic motivation to share them in their class discussion. Instead of stickers and grades, the work itself offers the reward.

But what about kids who have been trained to work for stickers and grades, you ask? Won’t they still be looking for an external reward, since they’ve been conditioned to do so? True. It might take some time to undo the damage done to students’ drive and work ethic, so you might need to wean them off slowly. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Still give stickers and stars, but not for work—simply because they’re fun.
  • Tell students that your goal is to help them rediscover their self-motivation, and that you’re going to work at giving them more choice and control over their work. Invite them to help you think of options for how work might be done.
  • kids_reading
    For students hooked into grades, have them try grading themselves. How hard do they think they worked? How well did they challenge themselves? (You, of course, are still in charge of assessing their proficiency in relation to standards and competencies, though they might help with that as well.)

So, consider offering your students even just a little bit of choice about an upcoming learning task. Are there two articles they could choose from? Are there three practice sheets you could offer? Might students choose to work alone or with a partner? Could they use dice or cards to create their own problems? Might they write persuasively through op-eds, blog articles, or cartoons? It is amazing to see how even just bite-sized choices, offered within the context of regular schoolwork can boost students’ engagement and self-motivation!