Motivating Change - Steve Barkley

Motivating Change

I receive monthly the free online newsletter from Marv Marshall, the author of Discipline Without Stress. I often promote Marv’s work encouraging teachers to look at classroom structures focused on promoting student thinking, choices, and responsibility. The following appeared in his most recent newsletter:
In a classic study, scientists put two rats in a cage, each of them locked in a running wheel. The first rat could exercise whenever he liked. The second was yoked to the first and forced to run when his counterpart did.

Exercise usually reduces stress and encourages neuron growth, and indeed, the first rat’s brain bloomed with new cells. The second rat, however, lost brain cells. He was doing something that should have been good for his brain, but he lacked one crucial factor: control. He could not determine his own “workout” schedule, so he didn’t perceive it as exercise. Instead, he experienced it as a literal rat race.

This experiment brings up a troubling point about stress.

Psychologists have known for years that one of the biggest factors in how we process stressful events is how much control we have over our lives. As a rule, if we feel we’re in control, we cope. If we don’t, we collapse.

This exact point was made as it pertains to self-talk, victimhood thinking, and “choice-response thinking” on pages 14 – 17 in the book described at

In my work with student effort and motivation, I encourage teachers to examine how we can build more student control into the curriculum. Where can you give students more choices? How can you use technology to expand student control? Considering that cell phones aren’t allowed in most schools, many students “power down” and lose control as they enter our doors.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review, “When Economic Incentives Backfire”, connects thinking about control, reflection and satisfaction to adult incentives that I believe carries over to classrooms for students.

Organizations and societies rely on fines and rewards to harness people’s self-interest in the service of the common good. The threat of a ticket keeps drivers in line, and the promise of a bonus inspires high performance. But incentives can also backfire, diminishing the very behavior they’re meant to encourage.

A generation ago, Richard Titmuss claimed that paying people to donate blood reduced the supply. Economists were skeptical, citing a lack of empirical evidence. But since then, new data and models have prompted a sea change in how economists think about incentives—showing, among other things, that Titmuss was right often enough that businesses should take note.

Experimental economists have found that offering to pay women for donating blood decreases the number willing to donate by almost half, and that letting them contribute the payment to charity reverses the effect. Consider another example: When six day-care centers in Haifa, Israel, began fining parents for late pickups, the number of tardy parents doubled. The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.

Wow! I’d love to hear the conversations inside students’ heads when school rewards and punishments are placed in front of them. I am recalling a teacher who shared the frustration in motivating her high school son who had just realized that 90% was an A. He stated, “Do you know how much time and effort I’ve wasted getting 95 and 96%?”

Or, early in my teaching career when I confronted Jimmy, a struggling 6th grader, with the mandate that he could do the work I assigned or head to the office. He jumped up from his seat and said, ”I’ll see you later Mr. Barkley.” I guess that is similar to the women who decided to pay for being late; Jimmy decided to pay for not doing the work. (It took me too long to discover that Jimmy wasn’t able to do what I had assigned and paying the cost of the office discipline was easier.)

Here is one more example of the importance of control, reflection, satisfaction and responsibility in motivation and change:

In the March 11, 2009 issue of Education Week, Donald Gratz in an article titled Purpose and Performance In Teacher Performance Pay states:

“To believe that teachers will try harder if offered a financial incentive is to assume that they aren’t trying hard now, that they know what to do but simply aren’t doing it, and that they are motivated more by money than by their students’ needs. These are unlikely and unsupported conclusions, which teachers find insulting rather than motivating.”

As school leaders we must examine how we can empower student and teacher learners. Empowerment found through learning will motivate effort.

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2 Responses to “ Motivating Change ”

  1. Chuck Says:

    Thanks for your post. I’ve also read Marshall’s book, but never seriously related it to learning motivation. Our state tests are soon approaching and as school principal, I’ve been having some “I Believe in You” meetings with students we’ve targeted as needed encouragement and confidence. As expected, each student talks about wanting to pass the tests. The next step has been the most important…I pose the following question to the student:
    “What are you willing to do to ensure that happens?” I’ve been surprised and pleased with some of the specific steps students have suggested in their answers. The meetings are productive and far less contrived when you find that most are willing to take some ownership of their learning.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    The recent work I did with students at Twin Lakes in Tampa about effort reveled that many of them gave their teacher credit for their learning. I had to question them quite awhile before they uncovered what they had done that led to learning.

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