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by Bob Sullo
Table of Contents
The vast majority of schools and classrooms rely on the reward/ punishment model. Make no mistake: this model works very well for some students. Students who come from supportive homes and who value learning often fare quite well. The problem is that the reward/punishment approach doesn't work well enough for the majority of students. Too many are left behind, failing to reach their potential. This way of understanding human behavior and motivation has taken us as far as it can. We need to reexamine what motivates our students so that we can more effectively educate tomorrow's citizenry.
This chapter will introduce the concept of internal control psychology, a completely different approach to motivation. Teachers have a responsibility to bring out the best in their students. To do so, they need to have a thorough grasp of what drives human behavior. Well acquainted with a sound theory and equipped with the knowledge that humans are internally motivated, we can create schools and classrooms in which significantly more students are inspired to engage in high-quality work and put forth the effort needed for academic excellence. If we are serious about educational improvement, it's time to embrace a new way to educate—one based on the principles of internal control psychology.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 of this book introduced the cornerstones of the external control model of human motivation:
I propose that educators move to a completely different model for understanding human motivation. We are not controlled from the outside, as the reward/punishment model would have us believe. On the contrary, we are internally motivated. We constantly behave in ways that we believe will make the world reflect what we want at that moment.
There are various permutations of internal control psychology. I practice and teach choice theory, developed by William Glasser, M.D. This chapter provides a synopsis of some major components of choice theory; the following chapters illustrate how to implement the concepts of internal control psychology in your classroom and school.
Many educators pride themselves on being pragmatic practitioners who have little time for or interest in theory. More action- oriented, they prefer strategies they can immediately apply in the classroom. "Why waste precious time on theory?" they wonder. It's a fair question and one that I would like to answer.
Successful teaching—and indeed, success in any undertaking based on human interaction—requires a thorough understanding of motivation and behavior. Most of us have been raised and educated with the external control model of reward and punishment. While a model based upon fear, coercion, and external rewards can be effective to a point, it cannot inspire large numbers of students to do high-quality work. To improve our schools in any appreciable way, we need to implement the internal control psychology that more accurately explains human behavior. As long as we are only knowledgeable about the flawed psychology of external control, we will never be able to substantially improve our interactions with others and be more successful as educators. Once we are well versed in internal control psychology, we can create schools, classrooms, and relationships that foster academic excellence in many more students.
I want to offer a theoretical overview to avoid the "cookbook" approach found in too many texts that do little more than provide exhaustive lists of classroom strategies. No matter how valid the strategies, there will be instances where you encounter a situation that will fall outside the scope of what has been described in even the most comprehensive book. In those cases, it's crucial to have a solid grasp of the psychology that best explains human behavior and motivation. With that in mind, let's examine some of the key aspects of internal control psychology.
All behavior, from birth until death, is purposeful, engaged in so that we can meet five human drives:
Because these drives are common to all people, they are often called the basic needs. The needs represent the "nature" side of the coin in the nature/nurture mixture. The educational environment we create represents the "nurture" side of the coin and is at least as important as the nature side woven into our basic needs.
Most educators are familiar with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In Maslow's model, individuals must meet lower-level needs like survival and safety before they can turn their attention to higher-order needs like self-esteem and self-actualization. The needs identified in choice theory do not exist as a pyramid or hierarchy. Just as there are people who are taller and people who are shorter, the strength of the basic needs differs from person to person. Like other things in nature, the strength of the basic needs falls along a normal distribution curve, with most people having need strength that is "typical." There are, however, people whose needs are especially strong or weak in a given area. My older daughter has an especially strong need to connect and belong. Both my son and I have a particularly strong need to be free and autonomous. My wife's need for safety and survival is stronger than that of anyone else in our immediate family.
The difference in need strength among our students highlights the importance of differentiated instruction. While our underlying educational objectives may be the same for all students, differentiated instruction allows us to create lesson plans with the need profiles of our students in mind so that more students can achieve academic excellence. Lessons ideally suited to one student may be less successful with others because of the strength of the basic needs each student brings to the classroom. The work of Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999, 2003; Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006) is particularly useful for teachers interested in creating a classroom where all students can achieve success through differentiated instruction.
Generally speaking, educators are most concerned with their students' need to achieve power and competence. We want to inspire our students so that their natural desire to achieve expresses itself in the pursuit of academic excellence. It is important to remember that although there is a natural drive to be powerful and competent, we do not instinctively know how to gain power and competence. In fact, many people develop power in destructive ways, such as by becoming bullies or using their influence to harm others.
The need for survival, safety, and security is especially evident when people "downshift" to survival. In these circumstances, the individual is so preoccupied with being safe that he or she has little emotional energy available to attend to other needs. When we introduce fear into the educational environment, the need for safety and survival dominates the attention of our students, and they are less driven by the need to develop academic competence. Chapter 1 offered a glimpse into a classroom saturated by fear. We saw students operating from a survival perspective; for example, Marcy, a successful student, indicated she would never say anything "controversial or risky" in Sam Lewiston's class because fear permeated the environment. The need for safety and survival dominating her consciousness in that class kept her from engaging in creative, risk-taking behaviors that fuel academic excellence.
Individuals with an especially high need for safety and survival tend to avoid taking risks. Those whose drive for safety and survival is less strong are more willing to take chances. At certain developmental stages, people tend to be more or less concerned with safety and survival because the strength of our needs ebbs and flows throughout the course of our lives. Adolescents, for example, are much more likely to be risk takers than younger children. Even within a given developmental period, however, we see individuals with particularly strong or relatively weak basic needs compared to their cohort. Just observe a typical school playground or physical education class for a few minutes, and you will likely see students with particularly high and low needs for safety and survival. Academic classrooms also reveal students across the spectrum. For example, students with a high need for safety and survival will only raise their hands when they are certain they have the correct answer. What we often refer to as "timidity" has its roots in the instinctive drive to be safe and secure.
The need to belong and connect is the social need we all share. The fact that need strength differs from person to person helps explain why social, cooperative learning activities are so successful with some students and so ineffective with others. Students with an especially strong need to connect will thrive academically when provided with a well-structured cooperative activity (although given a teacher with poor management skills and a group activity that is inadequately structured, these same students will waste academic time and be content to simply socialize). By the same token, if you put students with a low drive to connect into a cooperative group, they may flounder and possibly drag the group down, because the success of a cooperative group is determined in large measure by successful collaboration and interaction. While it is true that some students lack the specific skills to cooperate effectively with others, some simply lack the drive and have little inherent interest in social interaction.
Regardless of the strength of their need to connect, all students have some drive to belong and connect. Since students are driven by a social imperative, effective teachers structure their lessons so students can meet this need while engaging in rigorous academic work. Failure to offer students a chance to interact for long periods only invites off-task behavior that compromises learning.
We are all driven to make choices and exercise autonomy. In many ways, our humanity is defined by our ability to make choices. That fact that the desire for freedom is a fundamental human quality was powerfully described by psychiatrist Rollo May (1953) in Man's Search for Himself. May writes a parable of a man who is put in a cage and denied his freedom, all the while being very well taken care of and visited daily. Quickly the man becomes zombielike, his spirit destroyed by his lack of freedom. The need for freedom is especially important to address in schools, precisely because there are so many things that "must" be done and are nonnegotiable. Since school is somewhat coercive by its very nature, it is helpful to provide as many options to students as possible. Providing options does not mean that you "water down standards" or compromise the learning objectives. Instead, it means that you intentionally provide some choice and autonomy within a structure that supports your teaching objectives and the highest academic standards.
I have heard William Glasser emphasize the connection between fun and learning many times. My son helped me understand this concept many years ago.
"Hey, Dad," he said one evening, "look at this. Pretend you wanted to multiply 7/21 and 9/27. You can multiply 7 times 9. That's easy: 63. But 21 times 27 is pretty hard. But if you just reduce the fractions, you can make it 1/3 times 1/3. That's simple: 1/9."
"Who taught you that?" I asked.
"No one. I was just messing around and figured it out," Greg answered.
The next day, I asked Greg, "Was it fun when you figured out that fraction process?"
"Yeah, Dad," he answered enthusiastically. "It's always fun when you learn something new!" It was at that moment that I understood the strong link between fun and learning.
Walk into any great classroom, and the feeling of fun is palpable. It can be seen on the faces of the students. Just as importantly, it can be seen on the face and in the body language of the teacher. This doesn't mean that there is chaos and foolishness going on. On the contrary, the best classrooms are characterized by focused work in a joyful atmosphere. One of the best teachers I ever supervised as a school administrator often told parents, "We're all about the work in my classroom." This dedicated teacher was demanding and ran a highly structured, no-nonsense classroom. And I enjoyed visiting her room every day because it was a joyous, fun-filled room where active learning was on display regularly.
The external control model would have us believe that reactive students walk into our classes ready to be shaped by our presentation of rewards or punishments. In fact, students are internally driven by the needs built into their genetic code, and they behave in a never-ending quest to satisfy the universal needs to connect, be powerful, make choices, and have fun in a safe, secure environment. Our success as teachers is largely determined by how effective we are at creating learning environments where students can meet their needs by immersing themselves in the academic tasks we provide.
Whereas basic needs are universal and general drives, motivation is specific. I want to connect with this person. I feel competent and powerful when I engage in this activity. I am autonomous and have fun when doing this activity. As we experience enjoyment through need-satisfying experiences, we create a special collection of our most treasured people, behaviors, values, and beliefs. Choice theory refers to this concept as the quality world. I will refer to it as the
internal world, the terminology I used in Activating the Desire to Learn (2007). While the label we use to identify this concept is not especially important, it is crucial to understand that the internal world is the source of all motivation. Whatever I place in my internal world is there because by being with that person or engaging in that behavior, I am able to satisfy the universal basic needs that constantly drive me.
For all intents and purposes, our internal world is empty at birth; we have not yet identified specific people, behaviors, values, or beliefs to motivate us in a specific way. Over time, as we interact with the world, we each build a unique internal world. As a family, school, and community, we have a profound impact on the creation of the internal world. How we raise and educate our children will help determine the kinds of belonging, power, freedom, fun, and survival pictures they put into their internal world.
Given poor guidance and little nurturing, a student may put gang membership into his or her internal world. Being in a gang can help an individual satisfy all of his or her needs. A less extreme but all too common example is one where a student puts bullying or disruption into his or her internal world. Those behaviors, as distasteful as they may be to us, can be addictively need-satisfying. If we want students to put school, learning, and working hard into their internal world, we must ensure that these activities are need-satisfying. If not, they will never be placed in the student's internal world and we will never see the kind of focused motivation and achievement we hope to see. The strategy I call "Plan with the Students' Needs in Mind" (see Chapter 10) will help you create lesson plans that are need-satisfying for your students.
Too many of us are quick to make comments like "He needs a dose of reality" or "She just doesn't get it" when another person simply perceives things differently than we do. How do we develop our perceptions? Three distinct filters contribute to our perception of reality: our sensory system, our current knowledge, and our values.
Reality exists outside us. To perceive external reality, we first need to access information on a sensory level. If we don't see it, hear it, feel it, taste it, or touch it, it does not exist for us. People with different sensory input will develop different perceptions, even if they were both in the same place.
Consider the following classroom example. You are a high school math teacher being formally observed by your department head. You are at the board, showing the class how to solve equations with multiple variables. Out of the corner of your eye, you see one of your students flicking paper at the student sitting in front of him. Knowing that physical proximity can be an effective management strategy, you leave the front of the room and position yourself near the offending student. You don't need to say a word, and the inappropriate behavior stops.
During your post-observation conference, the department head informs you that you would have been more effective had you remained at the front of the room as you discussed the process of solving equations. His "reality" was created without seeing the student flicking papers at a classmate. Even though we may share a common experience, each of us creates our own reality and behaves accordingly.
Situations like this abound. The role the sensory filter plays in the creation of perceptions explains why it is so important to arrange your classroom wisely. Ideally, you and every student would have maximum access to all essential sensory input while distractions were minimized. Strategically placing yourself as you teach and assist small groups and individuals minimizes the development of inaccurate perceptions due to incomplete sensory information. Additionally, you may have some students with identified sensory deficits that require special placement in the classroom.
Assuming information passes through our sensory filter without being compromised in any appreciable way, we next filter the incoming information against what we already know. Even though the external physical reality of the book in your hands at this very moment is identical for all readers, each reader perceives what is written here based on the preexisting knowledge he or she brings to the experience. Those well versed in internal control psychology perceive things differently from those who are unfamiliar with this explanation of human behavior, even though the printed words are the same for both readers.
The impact of the knowledge filter is felt in every classroom. I recently met a woman on an airplane who told me she had just completed a trip to Egypt with her grandson, who was in the 6th grade. In the school at which I last worked, our 6th grade students studied Egypt as part of the social studies curriculum. If that boy had been a student in our 6th grade, he would have perceived the unit about Egypt differently from most of his classmates because he had actually seen the pyramids, ridden on a camel, and experienced Egypt, even if only briefly.
Especially in the primary grades, the knowledge that students bring to the classroom varies widely and impacts their perceptions dramatically. Some have come from advantaged homes and have been to the zoo and museums or traveled to many places and seen people from various cultures speaking different languages. Others may have never traveled beyond a five-block radius from their home. As you teach (external reality), these students create perceptions based on the existing knowledge they have. Our educational system strives to provide common experiences to all students so the less advantaged children can "catch up" and develop the same rich perceptions as their more affluent peers.
Finally, all information from the outside world passes through our value filter, where we nonconsciously ascribe a positive, negative, or neutral value to an event. Our decision is always based upon what we want at that moment. Imagine a teacher who positively values active learning, cooperative group work, and student enthusiasm. As she scans her class, she sees close to 30 students clustered around the room in small groups, some of them sitting at tables, others standing. Although there is a fair amount of noise, she has a system that gets the students quiet and attentive in a matter of a few seconds. Sometimes students' voices get a little loud, but as she listens to what they are saying, she is delighted that the students are vigorously debating and discussing the topic she has asked them to explore. In addition to receiving the information on a sensory and knowledge level, she attaches a strong positive value to the experience because what she perceives closely matches what she wants at that moment.
Suddenly, she remembers that her supervisor is going to come to the room in just a couple of minutes for her annual formal evaluation! Imagine for a moment that this administrator believes that one essential quality of a good teacher is having the students silent most of the time, with occasional moments of conversation that rises barely above a whisper. Right or wrong, this administrator believes that kids are too boisterous by nature and need the structure of sitting in rows in a traditional classroom that is more teacher-centered than student-centered. She'll be there any moment.
This scenario illustrates an important point: internal world pictures are sometimes in conflict. The teacher values active learning. She is excited when the students get involved in a heated exchange about the topic they are studying. She is elated that the students are engaged and enthusiastic about learning. She also values her job and appreciates the importance of receiving a positive evaluation from the administrator. She knows that if she is observed at this moment, the administrator will not be pleased and her written evaluation will reflect her displeasure. The teacher's internal pictures are in conflict.
While there is no "right" way to resolve this conflict, let's assume that getting a favorable evaluation and keeping her job (professional survival) is more immediately compelling than demonstrating a teaching style that involves considerable student conversation, interaction, movement, and engagement. Because the desire to keep her job is so powerful, her perception of the class suddenly shifts and becomes decidedly negative. Even though "reality" hasn't changed at all in the intervening few seconds, she has shifted her perception from positive to negative once she remembers that her supervisor is about to observe her class. This does not mean that she values a positive evaluation more than she values creating a student-centered classroom. When internal pictures are in conflict—as they frequently are—we act based on what we want at that moment, not necessarily on what we believe is most important and representative of our deepest values and beliefs.
We talk about "reality" glibly, as if we all share the same reality. Because each of us has different sensory input, knowledge, and values, our perceptions of outside reality are often quite different from one another, and they can change instantaneously depending upon what we want at any given moment.
At every moment, we compare our perception of reality and our picture of how we want things to be. Much of this comparing is out of awareness. When there is a match (or near match), we naturally continue to act in much the same way because our current behaviors are effective in helping us achieve our goals. When there is enough of a discrepancy, we change what we are doing so the world we perceive will more closely resemble the world we want. All behavior is purposeful because the intent of our behavior is to create a match between the perceived world and the internal world.
Let's return to the example of the teacher from the previous section. Initially, she perceived her class positively. Had her supervisor not been planning to observe the class, our teacher would have done everything possible to keep such a "great" class going so well. Because she was so pleased with how things were going, she would have maintained most of what she was doing, making only subtle changes that she thought would enhance an already positive teaching experience. With the realization that her supervisor was coming to observe the class and the knowledge that this administrator favors a traditional, teacher-centered classroom, our teacher immediately experienced the frustration we feel when we realize the world we perceive is very different from how we want it to be.
Since all behavior is purposeful, our teacher quickly gets the class in a more traditional classroom arrangement and informs the students they will do something different today because she is having a visitor who wants to observe her providing extended direct instruction to a well-behaved group of students. As the students conform to her requests, our teacher finds there is a match between how the class looks and what she wants at this moment. Notice that our teacher, like all of us, is motivated not by the outside world but by what she wants at that moment.
Some of you may point out that the teacher will likely resume her preferred approach once the formal observation is complete and her supervisor has left the room. I suspect you are right, because her internal pictures will also shift once her supervisor has left the room. She will once again be motivated to have the kind of classroom she had at the beginning of this scenario. This illustrates two important concepts:
This explains how students can appear sincere when they tell you they will complete their assigned homework and yet return to class the next day unprepared—again! While many of us falsely think the students were "playing us" or manipulating us, more often than not they were telling the truth at the time but didn't follow through because their pictures had changed in the interim.
While much of our internal evaluation occurs on a nonconscious level, it is wise to make our evaluations about education and academics conscious and intentional. This is the topic of Chapter 11.
We are born with powerful basic needs: to connect with others, to gain competence and power, to be autonomous, and to have fun and learn in a safe, secure environment. As we live our lives, we encounter people and engage in behaviors that help us satisfy these needs that drive us incessantly. We put need-satisfying people and behaviors, as well as values and beliefs, into our unique internal world, the source of all motivation. When students find school and learning to be a need-satisfying experience, they will put working hard and learning into their internal world and will be the academically motivated students we would like them to be.
Although we all live in the "real world," we each develop a perception of reality based on sensory input, current knowledge, and personal values. We then internally compare our perception of reality with the idealized picture we have in our internal world. We maintain or change our behavior in a purposeful attempt to create a match between what we perceive and what we want at that moment.
A superintendent in Dutchess County, New York, once said this after taking a four-day training session with me: "Choice theory reminds me of sailing. I can teach a person how to sail in about 30 minutes. They can then spend the next twenty years or more learning how to sail!" I have given you only the bare bones, but this outline provides you with enough information to start applying a new approach to understanding human behavior and motivation in your school and classroom. We can move beyond the limit of compliance offered by the carrot-and-stick model of external control psychology and intentionally create environments that will inspire more students to do higher-quality academic work. The following chapters examine specific strategies and applications of these concepts in the classroom and school.
Readers interested in a more comprehensive treatment of choice theory are encouraged to consult Choice Theory (Glasser, 1998) as well as Activating the Desire to Learn (Sullo, 2007) and The Inspiring Teacher (Sullo, 2008).
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