"The Talent Code" - Motivation Theory Explored

Let's start with a belief that guides a lot of what I do: I believe that most people want to do something good, useful and productive with their days. I believe that most individuals have an inherent desire to grow and learn. It is the outside, sometimes uncontrollable factors that get in the way. Those factors are what I want to look into today.

At our school, we are having a book club of sorts among the entire staff. Our principal gave us all a copy of "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle (@DanielCoyle). Read one of many book reviews here. Coyle makes an argument that myelin, a material in our brains that increases the speed and efficiency of neurological synapses, is produced more quickly when individuals take part in "deep practice". The 20 second theory is that focused, specific practice that is just beyond our range of comfort (and therefore continually increasing in difficulty as we grow and improve) in short bursts does way more good than extended periods of practice that could be described as going-through-the-motions. There is some data to back these claims. It is very clearly a theory that is in need of much more research in years to come, but it is also very clearly a promising and intriguing way of thinking about the process of learning.

One of the aspects of "The Talent Code" is that of motivation, which makes sense. A person does not spend time intensely practicing a skill if that person is not highly motivated to get really good at said skill. Coyle uses  the term ignition, which I love. It gives a sense of fire, of wanting to succeed with a deep passion. Any day that I feel that I have ignited my students towards any goal is a successful day.

Coyle tells many stories about groups of "talent hotbeds" that have experienced ignition through some event, but my favorite is the story of Andruw Jones*, who is from the tiny island of Curacao just north of Venezuela. Jones hit two famous World Series home runs against the Yankees in the first two World Series at-bats of his career in 1996. The following Spring, the youth baseball league in Curacao had 400 more kids sign up than the year before. 400! That's 40 more teams in the league! The homers from Andruw Jones ignited a passion and motivation in the kids of Curacao in October of 1996. Curacao has won 10 of the last 13 Caribbean Little League World series titles and they won the whole thing in 2004.

*Coyle also uses Brazilian soccer as an example of a talent hotbed. I had to sneak soccer in here somewhere! The story is less convincing than the Andruw Jones example, but man I love futsal! I played futsal as a kid. It is tremendously more difficult that regular soccer. Check out this highlight reel of Ronaldinho as a kid on a futsal court. Legen...wait for it...dary. 

So let's think about this in terms of a classroom. I want to motivate my kids. I want them to leave my class every day feeling like they have a fire of excitement and possibility light from within. I want to, over the course of my time with each student, teach them the value of intrinsic motivation so that they are independent thinkers rather than drones dependent on the next task being given to them. I want to propose a three-part motivational strategy that becomes all-encompassing. If students don't want to be here, that makes everything else I do much less meaningful.

Part 1: Discipline
An individual who has no discipline has no chance at achieving lasting motivation. I think back to my first year and a half of teaching and I literally, physically shudder. It was bad. The students didn't like me and I didn't like my students very much. While I thought that this group of students didn't care, I now realize that they felt no motivation whatsoever to put effort into my class, partly because of what I was doing. I had created an environment where students could turn work in whenever, get away with most anything short of cussing me out and where I took on most of the responsibility for getting students to turn work in correctly and on time. While I suppose you could say this was a noble try, I was completely lost and my students knew it. They did enough work to get their grade, probably learned very little and happily parted ways with me come the end of the year.

To be disciplined has many shades other than the traditional military style obedience. I now set up rules and policies that ping off of two questions. If the rule or procedure doesn't answer both of these questions with a 'yes', then I need to get rid of that rule.
Question 1 - Does this rule or procedure help the students learn better? 
Question 2 - Will this rule or procedure instill a habit that will help the student in 20 years?
I explain to my students that I don't want to babysit them any more than they want to be babysat by me. They want to do something authentic rather than monotonously copy stuff out of an old textbook and I want them to get ready to enter an ever-more-difficult workforce in a few short years. When I am at my best, I am constantly questioning whether my activities and lessons foster a disciplined classroom.

Part 2: Utility
I dabbled briefly in economics in college. What little I learned taught me that the fifth ice cream cone is less enjoyable (lower utility) than the first ice cream cone (higher utility). After I finished day-dreaming about a trip to Culver's, the idea made a lot of sense. Most anyone loves a good ice cream cone, but the fifth cone of the day leaves you with brain-freeze and an upset stomach. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.* This holds true with assignments and activities. If I want to motivate my students each day, I need to foster the feeling of the first ice cream cone about each activity. The students need to see how it will happen, how it connects to yesterday and why it is important for them today. I wondered during one particularly bland activity this past fall if any of the students or myself would be upset if that activity just simply ceased to exist. I now wonder that often. If no one would be upset about the disappearance of something in my class, then I should work to get rid of that something. Every activity I do should be as close to the first ice cream cone as possible.

*Almost doesn't count.

Don't take your eye off the ball.

Winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

Thank you for riding the cliche express. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post

Part 3: Trust
Here is the greatest part of teaching. I was talking to a couple of other teachers at our weekly meeting this week. One of them said that the kids kept her motivated. No matter how tough everything else was, from curriculum, to parents to just being tired all the time, she could get excited about seeing the kids the next day. I believe that kids feel the same way about the teachers that they trust.

If we look at The Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Porter & Lawler, 1968; Vroom, 1964), we may find a different way to look at motivation. Charles Schmidt of the University of Rhode Island Labor Research Center writes in this article that motivation is task-specific. This means that a student may not be inherently motivated or unmotivated. Rather - and I'm adapting this into my own thoughts now - motivation is based on three factors: 1.) Does the student believe their effort will improve their product? 2.) Does the student believe a good product will lead to positive rewards? 3.) Does the student think that the reward is important? 




This has the potential to change how a teacher views motivation and the role that trust plays in the equation. I have, for much of my teaching career, viewed trust as step one rather than step three. The expectancy section makes sense to me. A student needs to believe that working hard will improve performance. If a student comes to tutoring and puts in extra work but doesn't feel like they know anymore than when they started, we may have an expectancy issue. The second section, instrumentality, is where concrete rewards like grades come into the picture. A student has to know that the extra work and increased knowledge will lead to a better grade or the work is no longer worth it. The third section is valence and is where this theory slots in trust into the equation. If a teacher tells students that they should come to morning tutoring, there has to be a worthy end-goal. 


This is where teachers and students have a disconnect. From the perspective of the teacher, one or two tutoring sessions represent the beginnings of a good study habit and should not be rewarded with a greatly increased grade. The teacher believes that getting back on the right path is reward enough. We think that students feel the same way about catching up as we do about a really productive Saturday morning of work to get caught up from the week. The student on the other hand thinks that they have gone above and beyond their duty as a student and should be immediately rewarded with an increased grade or something else tangible.

This is where personal relationships are so vital. If from a consistency and fairness standpoint I cannot radically improve grades for the beginnings of good habit forming such as coming to tutoring, what can I find for each student that satisfies the third part of the theory? It's different for each individual in each situation. We as teachers have to take advantage of the personal relationships we build and use them to find the spark that will motivate the student. We have to become experts at predicting what will cause the ignition that Coyle discusses* and they we have to aggressively go about creating as many sparks as humanly possible. 


*I think this will be another post about motivation in different school settings. "The Talent Code" is full of examples of talent hotbeds with an important factor in common - they are all voluntary. Each hotbed that is outlined is not an activity or a skill that is mandated, and I think that this is a major hole in his theory. I reached out to Daniel Coyle and he responded with KIPP schools as an example. KIPP, though, is still a voluntary charter school.


Thanks for reading. I hope it made you think!