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The Montessori Method - January 2012
Contemporary American culture has a major focus on motivation. It’s a huge business. We hear, “He’s a famous motivation speaker.” “She’s a motivation expert.” “We’re instituting a program of motivational incentives.” “We must motivate our children so they will [fill in the blank].” “You’ve just gotta get some motivation!”
Does it appear that motivation necessarily works against resistance? Motivation often sounds like something that party A does to party B. On the other hand, Psychology Today says that motivation is literally the desire to do things.1 From the outset we see the need to understand the seat of motivation, since it seems to have various sources. First, however, we might seek clarity on what motivation is.
The word motive derives from the Latin verb meaning to move. To move is one of the most basic words in all of language. Movement is a defining feature of Kingdom Animalia. Motivation focuses on what moves one toward action. This what is the subject of our discussion. Motivation has numerous synonyms—stimulus, incentive, boost, encouragement, goad, impetus, incitement, instigation, momentum, impulse, provocation, spur, stimulant, stimulus, yeast. We are dealing with a wide range of possibilities, which is another way of confirming that motivation is a major concern.
Within every living thing there is a life force propelling the organism onward. In French this essence is called élan vital (vital impetus). Maria Montessori, the psychologist Carl Jung, and others called it horme, a Greek word for the vital energy or natural urge which leads to movement. This life power is distinguished from consciously directed will. By any name, it moves insuppressibly toward unfoldment and expression. In newborn humans it is seen in the urgency to see and to hear; later, to grasp and pull, then to roll over, then pull up, toward mobility. In young children we see the urge to carry heavy objects and do monumental tasks. Children watch other children and adults, and take their cues on the possibilities of action. The energy is irresistible, one reason children operate as little movement machines.
Motivation, in other words, is inborn. Unless children are suppressed or frustrated—or deprived of effective models for action and behavior—they are urged onward toward those activities which are distinctively human, things which adults do day in, day out. Another word for this is intrinsic motivation. The motivation is inner, coming from the inside. Montessori theory posits that within a child is everything necessary for the manifesting of life, through self-construction. All that’s needed is the context of environment, and the environment is crucial. Appropriate environments are conducive to effective construction.
In spite of the natural flow of motivation, there are occasions when children experience decreased motivational drive. These events interrupt natural development and expression. The flow of vital energy becomes blocked or deviated, resulting in frustration of intent or desire. The most common occurrence of this nature is the substitution of another’s will for that of the child. We echo Dr. Montessori as often as we can: Any unnecessary help is an obstacle to development. The child must have freedom to do, and to do it independently. Unnecessary help—imposing the adult’s schedule and will at the expense of the child’s—eventually kills motivation. When the urge to “do it myself” is gone, the buoyant can-do spirit and the twinkle in the eyes are also gone.
It is no easy task to re-animate a child whose motivation has been depressed. In the absence of understanding what has happened, and lacking technique for reconnecting the child with meaningful, purposeful activities, adults typically resort to external motivators. Sooner or later, however, they discover that bribery will not achieve reliable reform of child behavior, nor can it address the underlying issue.
Recently a young child told his guide, “If I do what my Mother says for a week, she gives me money.” In a culture saturated with motivational incentives this statement is not terribly unusual. Yet several questions arise. What’s going on here? What is the purpose? Is money a reward for behavior? Is it a payoff? What’s happening to motivation? It sounds as though the adult has defined a standard of behavioral performance. The child has not measured up. So the adult has resorted to Plan B, which essentially is bribery: “Do what I want you to do and I’ll give you a payoff.” We might find prettier language to say this, but the reality is straightforward.
Dr. Montessori reported time and again that the children in her schools resisted rewards, and that punishment was never part of the system. The toys brought by wealthy visitors lay idle, while the children independently pursued purposeful work, real tasks they had seen their parents doing. Awards brought by a visitor were outright rejected by the children as being irrelevant. Psychology research for decades has demonstrated that when children are given rewards for a behavior, the motivation toward that behavior actually decreases. While this fact has become a commonplace, behavioral rewards are still rampant.
Once you have been paid to do something, what’s the chance you will do it again without payment? Once you are paid to do household chores, is there any chance you ever will embrace them as a fundamental responsibility of belonging to the family? What’s the chance you’re going to notice that something needs doing, and do it simply because it needs doing, without payment?
Where did the idea ever come from, that a child should be paid for doing household chores, or behaving appropriately and consistently? It’s degrading and debilitating to people to pay them to be functioning members of a family. We’re talking about things which people do irrespective of age. These are not things you get paid for—these are fundamental aspects of being human! Where is self-respect in all of this? Young children have a need for self-respect like everyone else, even if they don’t yet have the intellectual power to conceptualize it.
Rewards amount to a short-term solution for an annoying situation. Yet the long-term consequence operates toward the opposite direction. In other words, it is self-defeating. What’s more, it defeats the child’s sense of membership in the group, be it family or classroom. It defeats the child’s inner sense of reward for doing a job. And it ultimately robs the child of motivation to keep doing the task: once rewarded, the child becomes psychologically dependent on the reward as the motivator.
We are painting a picture with a broad brush, so let us illustrate some details. Some of the tasks and goals of which we speak are generated internally by the child, and some are incurred by virtue of social life, whether family, classroom, or society at large. There are innumerable benefits to living in social groups, and all of us have obligations. The obligations vary by age, ability and social standing. These goals and objectives are both mundane and exalted—carry out the trash, fold the laundry, help set and clear the table, clean up after yourself, keep your possessions and your room straightened, modulate your voice and control your attitude, respond appropriately when addressed, show courtesy and respect to other people, do what you say you will do, refrain from what is unacceptable or wrong, show initiative in doing chores which support family and group, practice those things which are required or which you have chosen, make your best effort, kick the ball the farthest, sing the most beautifully possible, and so on.
Many years ago I was in conference with the parents of a three-year-old boy. The child had a gargantuan sense of entitlement. He had almost no notion of responsibility, and he could not do much of anything. I was ever on the lookout for ways to help him connect and become a productive member of the school community. As for home, I suggested to his mother that he be given small tasks—anything which might increase his awareness of family membership. “He could fold wash cloths, socks and such,” I said. A self-made woman who owned her company, she arched her back and hissed, “Even I don’t do that!” We cleared this hurdle, and after years of reconstructive work this child became a conscious member of the community, embracing obligations mutually with his peers.
When you do a task because it is required, or because you receive payment, the motivation is extrinsic, meaning from the outside. Such motivation has nothing to do with inner satisfaction. It is essentially a commercial transaction, no matter if the venue is social. When you do a task because you have an inner drive to do it, the motivation is intrinsic. The rewards, whatever they are, are incidental to the process; the task and the doing of it are the source of satisfaction. Satisfaction, inner peace and a strengthened personality are the products of intrinsically motivated work. “Joy is the evidence of internal growth.”2
1 Psychology Today, Psych Basics: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/motivation, accessed December 9, 2011
2 Attributed to Maria Montessori
Dr. Larry Quade
AMI Teacher Trainer, BGMS Pedagogy Advisor