The Art of Motivation

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the Arkansas Art Educators Conference in Little Rock.  It is always such a joy to interact with so many others in my field, considering we are generally a pretty isolated bunch.  Each year I walk away with new tools, new connections, new skills, and a renewed sense of excitement about this work. This year there was one presentation that really stood out and I thought I would share some of its lessons with you.

The session was called, Issues and Theories in Motivating Students in the Art Room and was lead by Dr. Jeoffrey Grubbs, an educator and researcher at UALR. The session write up claimed that, “motivation is one of the least discussed topics in teaching and yet it constantly impacts students and teachers every day.  This presentation addresses nine motivational truths explained in ways that can be applied in an art classroom.”  Seventy-five people were packed into a tiny room, sitting on the floor and straining their necks to learn about this important piece of our daily work, and Dr. Grubbs did not disappoint.  This session really gave me a refreshed perspective on how to look at challenging students and re-grounded me in the art of motivation.

His truths

  1.  Everyone can be motivated
  2. Students are always motivated by something (whether it be you, peer approval, the seeking of attention, etc, actions are always motivated by some internal or external factors)
  3. Motivation is a relatively constant behavior.
  4. Rewards and punishment will have temporary impact, but do not encourage increased growth for the long term.
  5. Competition only motivates the students who think they can be winners.
  6. Achievement in one area in a student’s life can lead them to believe they can be successful in others.
  7. Increasing an individual’s sense of self efficacy – or perception of the ability to succeed – will increase motivation.  For us this means presenting learning materials so students can understand them, implementing and encouraging collaboration, and helping students to believe that high performance is an acquirable skill.
  8. Clear communication of expected outcomes increases motivation.  (explicit instructions, sharing learning goals, all that stuff they tell us to do – it’s real.)
  9. A teacher’s constructively encouraged language increases motivation.  We need to reduce the fear of learning and failure.

He also discussed a person’s motivational needs which include:

  • Physical Needs (food, shelter, safety and experience)
  • Cognitive Needs (understand/know, structure/order, and collect/create)
  • Psychological Needs (self-respect, express emotions, autonomy, and give/receive love)
  • Relational Needs (belonging, communication, esteem of others, relationship goals, status goals and responsibility goals)

The discussion of all of these made me realize that in order to catch those tricky kids, we need to find what is behind their motivation and get on board.  If a kid does better with a classroom job, perhaps they are driven by responsibility goals.  The class clown is likely operating with status goals in mind or is motivated by attention.  Kids who like to collaborate could be longing for a sense of belonging or may have a low sense of self efficacy and therefore need other students for support until they can build their confidence.  In turn, the only way to find out what each student’s motivators are, is through observation and relationship building.  We need to know more about our students so that we can figure out what makes them tick.  When you see 500 students a week, this can be a daunting task.  But I say start small.  I challenge you to choose one of your tough kids and try to find out his or her motivation.  What gets them going.  Then start to brainstorm ways to encourage that motivation but with the goal of academic/classroom advancement.  If a student is motivated by the attention of his or her peers, how can you enlist their help?  If he or she has a fear of failure, how can you start small and encourage them as they grow?  If you think about it in the frame of motivation, those challenging kids come back down to earth and become normal humans, operating themselves through human nature and needs.  And they become reachable.