We’ve Got Enough Fear: Hooray For Monday!

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 

Many things motivate us to learn something new: curiosity, necessity, a pull toward growth, hunger (for knowledge and/or homemade sourdough bread), among others. In school, a place that exists for the primary purpose of motivating people to learn, strategies for motivating students generally fall into two categories: fear and joy.  

 Because it tends to be prevalent in schools, fear is most familiar. Consider: 

  • Fear of displeasing the teacher and being “disciplined” can be a strong motivator to do your homework or turn on your zoom camera or listen to the teacher (or appear to). 
  • Fear of getting low grades, with the consequences attached by teachers, parents, and peers, can motivate students to persevere through hours, days, and months of textbook chapters, vocabulary lists, YouTube videos, and problem sets, regardless of the richness of content. 
  • Fear of getting called out in front of the class for unacceptable behavior, an incorrect answer, or lack of preparation can motivate students to follow the rules, listen attentively, and do the reading carefully. 
  • Fear of losing recess, ‘choice time’, classroom privileges, or other activities that are offered as privileges can motivate students to focus during class, act respectfully toward their teachers, and finish their work on time.

On the surface, this tried and true system of teaching (also very popular for parenting—think about those of us who learned to tolerate vegetables for fear of losing dessert) seems harmless enough. In the short term, fear-based motivation can and often does produce useful results. Working hard, meeting deadlines, following the rules, and preparing for class are important skills students should be learning in school. And if a little fear can motivate kids to learn these valuable skills, don’t the ends justify the means? Not to mention that fear-based motivation prepares young people for real life, when fear of getting fired, of disappointing colleagues or family members, of missing out on a promotion, of all forms of rejection, motivates professionals to ‘bring their A-game.’

But what about the unintended consequences of this approach? Imagine the inner-monologue of a student hard at work on her homework because she’s concerned about being embarrassed if she doesn’t know the answer in front of her classmates, or a student turning on his camera and sitting at attention in class so he doesn’t get an X next to his name on the class behavior chart. 

  • “I have to get through this chapter on chemical compounds so I won’t look dumb tomorrow in class.” 
  • “I really don’t understand/care about what the teacher is talking about, but I need to keep my eyes on the PowerPoint so I don’t miss recess again today.” 
  • “How much extra credit do I need to fix my grade?” 
  • “How can I convince my teacher not to call my parents and tell them that I got in trouble today?”

This approach risks teaching our young people to do the right thing, only when someone is watching. And any savvy young person will quickly learn to work around authority if the relationship is based on fear, not trust. And of course, not everyone will be afraid, or afraid enough, of the consequences. In that case, the only option is to raise the stakes, make the consequences more serious, increase the threat for noncompliance. This is the stuff that power struggles and arms races are made of.

The perils of fear-based motivation have always been real. But today, when fear for our country’s stability and anxiety about our personal health is at an all-time high, it’s incumbent upon us as educators to eschew fear-based motivation in school.

This week, ask yourself: 

What motivated my students to learn today?

Did fear play a role in how I managed my class? 

Notice your responses and if fear seems to be part of your instructional approach, ask yourself what you’d have to do differently to make joy the motivator instead. Next week we’ll explore those possibilities.

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