Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

October 16 Student Choices

In this month’s Ed Tips, you will learn how to turn angry and resistant kids who are likely to be behavior problems, into cooperating and productive students by simply giving them a voice in their education and the power to make choices in the classroom. Following this simple method allows the voices of so-called behavior problem students to be heard and thereby making them feel less helpless and hopeless. They believe they are in control of their education, resulting in more motivated students.

In his book Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, discusses an experiment by Mauricio Delgado, now an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Delgado, while at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted an experiment where participants in a fMRI viewed a number from 1 to 9, but before the number appeared they had to guess if the number was going to be higher or lower than five by pressing various buttons.

Delgado was not interested to see if the participants guessed right or wrong. Instead, he was interested in finding which parts of their brains became active as they played “this intensely boring game.” He wanted “to identify where neurological sensations of excitement and anticipation – where motivation – originated.”

The area of the brain called the striata, the central dispatch unit of he brain, lit up regardless if they won or lost. This kind of striatal activity is associated with emotional reactions, in particular, expectations, and excitement.

The striatum is the input unit of a larger structure, the basal ganglia. It is located deep inside the brain. Its serves as a central dispatch for the brain, relaying commands from areas like the PFC, where decisions are made, to an older part of our neology, the basal ganglia, where movement and emotions emerge. Neurologists believe the striatum helps translate decisions into actions and plays an important role in regulating moods.

Regarding its role in motivation, the striatum is involved in rewards processing and learning about rewards and using that information to make decisions that help guide behavior, updating the brain whether a reward is better or worse than prior expectations.

Two years later Delgado conducted the same experiment except this time a computer made the choice half the time and the participants made their choice the other half of the time. When the computer guessed, the participants reported the game felt like an assignment, they got bored and wanted the experiment to end.

“When the research subjects make their own choice, their brains lit up just like in the previous experiment”, Delgado reported. They were excited and where in an anticipatory mood. However, “when the people didn’t have any control over their guesses, their striata went essentially silent,” he noted. When not involved in making a choice, their brains were uninterested in the game because their striata didn’t light up. In debriefing at the end of the experiment, the research subjects reported they enjoyed themselves much more when they were in control of their choices.

Delgado and his colleagues wrote, “The anticipation of choice itself was associated with increased activity in corticostriatal regions, particularly the ventral striatum, involved in affective and motivational processes.”

Many believe that motivation is an innate skill, a static feature of our personality. But according to Duhigg, “scientists say motivation is a skill, akin to reading and writing that can be learned and honed. People can get better at it if they practice in the correct way. The key is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.”

According to Columbia University psychologists writing in Trends in Cognitive Science in 2010, “The need for control is a biological imperative.” “When people believe they are in control, they work harder and push themselves more. They are more confident, and overcome set backs faster, and they live longer,” they continue. For example, once infants learn to feed themselves, they will resist adult attempts to put food in their mouths.

Duhigg posits that one way to prove you are in control is to make decisions. “Each choice - no matter how small - reinforces the perception of control and self-efficacy,” the Columbia psychologists continue. Even if it delivers no benefit, people still want the freedom of choice. “Humans demonstrate a preference for choice over non-choice, even if the choice offers no additional reward.” (Delgado, Psychological Science, 2011)

“The first step in creating drive and motivation is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with autonomy and self-determination. People are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when these chores are presented as decisions rather than commands,” Duhigg offers.

Duhigg continues that the best method to motivate yourself or others is to find a choice-almost any choice-that allows you to exert control. “Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It is this feeling of self-determination that gets us going,” according to Duhigg.

Experts in the field of motivation, such as psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, have emphasized that people are more motivated to engage in those activities in which they feel their opinion or voice is being heard and in which they are provided with genuine opportunity to make choices and decisions.

Their work has contributed to an understanding of why “people rewarded for engaging in activities that bring them enjoyment and for which they are intrinsically motivated may actually become less interested in these activities once rewards are introduced.”

Given three decades of research, Deci and Ryan have produced hundreds of research papers, most of which point to the same conclusion. “Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. When these needs are met, the actions of our students, employees, and family members will be rooted not by short-term and inconsistent extrinsic motivation, but by sustaining, ingrained and habitual intrinsic motivation.”

Based on their theories, Deci and Ryan have developed The Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a motivational framework for all individuals. According to SDT, all individuals have three basic needs. And what are those three needs? The authors opine that “there are three basic, innate, psychological needs that we all have: the need to belong or feel connected, the need to feel competent, and the need for autonomy or self-determination. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

Robert Brooks, on the faculty of Harvard Medical School who often cites Deci and Ryan in his writings and presentations, speaks of conditions that create “motivating environments” for students. All individuals thrive in "motivating environments" in which cooperation, respect, and responsibility are the dominant behaviors.

And how does one create motivating environments? Brooks believes by giving students a sense of “personal control.” He continues, “When students feel a sense of personal control, they focus their time and energy on those situations over which they can have some impact, rather than on events that are beyond their sphere of influence.” They take responsibility and ownership for their actions and recognize what he has frequently emphasized in his workshops, namely, “we are the authors of our own lives.”

The belief about authorship of our own lives is inextricably interwoven to another issue Brooks has addressed in his work, that of intrinsic motivation. When students are intrinsically motivated, they experience a sense of controlling their environment leading to motivating environments.

How do teachers give children the opportunity to take ownership for their education and thereby give them a sense of empowerment? Begin by examining whether children in your classroom have a say in their education and examining what choices you have given your students.

Do children have to complete all of the homework given? How about allowing them the ability to make a choice and complete any 6 out of 10 problems. On essay tests, allow them to choose between two or three different topics. Instead of required oral presentations, let students choose an alternate mode of presentation. Permit students to decide when they want to take test or an exam on a given day, say during class, before, or after school.

Research has shown everyone wants to feel they have a choice. Simply giving students choices in the classroom and a voice in their education increases the learned skill of motivation, a sense of "personal control” in their educational lives, and helps develop intrinsic motivation.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.