The 6 ‘M’s of intrinsic motivation

Date

July 23, 2019

5 min read

Consider global education as a garden. Since 2000, physical access to education has improved greatly, and most kids are now enrolled in school. And we’re planting better and better technical seeds, from reading programmes to adaptive learning software. But outcomes around the world aren’t improving quickly enough, as the motivational soil simply isn’t fertile: teachers have fallen out of love with teaching. Officials have fallen out of love with their teachers. And as a result, children have fallen out of love with learning. No matter how good the access and the technical seeds are, the soil is essential for the garden to grow healthily and sustainably.

By the soil, we mean intrinsic motivation at all levels of the system – a critical ingredient in any reform efforts.

WHAT IS INTRINSIC MOTIVATION?

Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to something because it is inherently satisfying – not because of external “carrots and sticks” (contingent rewards). It’s based on building a sense of autonomy (that you can change something), mastery (that you can improve), and purpose (a connection with what you are doing and others around you).

Importantly, what demotivates someone is not the opposite of what motivates someone. Extrinsic factors like pay, good working conditions and formal career structures are of course important – and their absence can lead to demotivation. But once you have these in place as “hygiene factors”, intrinsic motivation makes the biggest difference to overall levels of motivation. And “carrots and sticks” can actually undermine intrinsic motivation in the longer-term.

This thinking has largely been ignored in the development and social sectors. Instead governments have tried to enhance extrinsic motivation. Teacher pay is a good example: it increased so substantially in India and Indonesia that teachers in these countries became among the highest paid in the world, relative to per capita GDP. Yet a quarter of teachers still remain absent on any given school day.

They have also designed ever more elaborate carrots and sticks, from performance bonuses (carrots) to biometrically fingerprinting teachers (sticks). But even when such initiatives work in the short-term (many show mixed results), they are usually expensive and politically unpalatable – and can undermine intrinsic motivation in the longer-term.

WHY IS INTRINSIC MOTIVATION SUCH A GOOD INVESTMENT? – THE “6 MS”

At STiR Education, we’ve been trying to re-ignite intrinsic motivation across existing officials, teachers and children in government education systems in India and Uganda. And at reasonable scale – this year working with 200,000 teachers across 50,000 schools. In our experience across 60 districts, intrinsic motivation is almost always:

  • MISSING
    Everyone – from teachers to ministers – says that intrinsic motivation is the biggest thing that keeps them up at night. But until now, it hasn’t had a name. Now that it has been diagnosed, it can be explicitly addressed.
  • MEANINGFUL
    Recent, pioneering systems research has found that well-designed and funded system reform efforts – such as a new maths curriculum in Uganda – often fail because they are resisted by teachers and district officials. “Forced compliance” can make these reforms happen on paper, but rarely in intent and spirit.
  • MEASURABLE
    We’ve worked out how to measure motivation using behavioural indicators. For example, a motivated teacher shows up to school, spends the majority of their time teaching, continually tries to improve their teaching, and focuses on every child in their class. At STiR, we now use an app to collect this data monthly at large scale, validated by a rigorous independent longitudinal study.
  • MARRIAGEABLE
    Intrinsic motivation can amplify the uptake, engagement and impact of other technical interventions in the same district. Technical seeds grow taller and faster when married with good motivational soil. For example, Room to Read found that reading outcomes from its programmes were greater in districts where teachers and officials were intrinsically motivated.
  • MAINTAINABLE
    We’ve helped governments build structures that maintain intrinsic motivation. For example, we helped the Delhi government to build a new structure of Teacher Development Coordinators in each school to support the intrinsic motivation of the teachers in their care. To ensure sustainability, our approach is owned and run by governments from day one.
  • MONEY-SMART
    Our approach costs just $15 USD per teacher per year in India (<0.1% of a teacher’s salary) and $0.50 per child per year (<0.2% of government per pupil spend). Compare that to a recent ‘carrot and stick’ teacher bonus scheme being tested in Rwanda, which costs 20% of a teacher’s salary – 200 times the equivalent cost.

BUT IT’S NOT A SILVER BULLET

We’ve found that intrinsic motivation is an essential but not sufficient condition for system change and long-term changes in outcomes. We’ve identified some external factors that help an intrinsic motivation approach to be successful. These include having extrinsic ‘hygiene factors’ in place, like paying teachers a fair wage and on time; a cadre of district officials who can develop intrinsic motivation approaches; and other technical interventions in place that can be amplified. We now ensure these conditions are in place (or are being worked on) before we engage with governments.

There’s a broader point here for the sector. Around the world, teachers have fallen out of love with teaching. In December 2018, more US teachers resigned than in any point in history, and 40% of new teachers in the UK quit within two years of joining the profession. STiR wants to change the global debate around teachers – and show that teachers can fall back in love with teaching again, cost-effectively and sustainably within government systems.

And if that’s true for teachers, it could hold for frontline workers in other sectors: we’ve started collaborating with the IDFC Institute and the Surgo Foundation to explore parallels with police officers and health workers. It’s time for our sector to embrace intrinsic motivation – and make a real impact around the world.

KEY TAKEAWAY

To grow intrinsic motivation in systems, communities or organisations, a focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose is critical. Only when all three factors are present, as well as the required “hygiene factors”, can a real shift in motivation be made.


About Author
Sharath Jeevan
Sharath Jeevan CEO STiR Education

Sharath studied at Cambridge and Oxford and received his MBA from INSEAD. He was awarded an honorary doctorate for his contribution to global education and serves on the Education Commission’s workforce group – the pre-eminent institution chaired by the UN’s Gordon Brown.