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Extrinsic Motivation and Inclusive Education

This blog post was provided by Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack.

“What do you know about motivation?” is a question I ask my education students when we begin to study Deci and Ryan’s (1985; 2017) self-determination theory. It is always interesting to me to learn how much of the theoretical nuance is understood by beginning teachers***. As it often happens when theory is translated into practice, much of the complexity and richness is lost when ideas make their way into educational common-sense.

“Well, there are two kinds of motivation…extrinsic and intrinsic” is a common response from my education students. Then they tell me that extrinsic motivation is the BAD kind and intrinsic motivation is the GOOD kind of motivation. While it is true that intrinsic motivation is generally considered healthier (and more autonomous) than extrinsic motivation, what is often lost in translation is the fact that MOST OF WHAT WE DO will be extrinsically motivated. As my colleagues and I described in our paper:

People regularly engage in activities that are not intrinsically motivating, such as chores, rituals, obligations, and exercising self-restraint, to name a few; people engage in these behaviours at least in part because of the separable and instrumental value of those behaviours. While some fortunate employees find themselves intrinsically motivated for some aspects of their work, for most of the work completed by employees in various sectors, including education, tasks completed for payment are, by definition, extrinsically motivated. (MacCormack et al., 2021, p. 4)

All of that is to say that it is important that my education students understand that extrinsic motivation is not necessarily impoverished or unhealthy motivation. There are plenty of examples of tasks that are motivated by extrinsic motivation. After all, extrinsic motivation is not a single factor, but four separate regulation styles along a continuum of motivation (external, introjected, identified, integrated). And for those people who rely on one or more of the extrinsic motivation regulation styles to do their job, knowing how to navigate among the four regulation styles of extrinsic motivation is an important step in supporting autonomous action.

So, what does this mean for teachers and school leaders?

Research has shown that, because inclusive practices are complex and effortful (and sometimes intimidating, especially for new teachers), it takes a lot of motivation to run an inclusive classroom. In this paper we focus on the role of principals and other school leaders in catalysing inclusive-positive attitudes and motivations of their teachers. As suggested by our qualitative study, principals use the four regulations of extrinsic motivation to move teachers along the motivation spectrum.

What comes out of our analysis is that the language that principals use can have a huge effect on the attitudes and beliefs of teachers. Does the principal try to instill in the teacher a shared sense of the morality of inclusive practice? Or, does the principal focus on requirements of teaching as described in the teaching Code of Conduct? Or, does the principal threaten the hesitant teacher with job loss? Each of those approaches has different implications and effectiveness, depending on the mindset of the teacher, because each approach aligns with a particular regulation type of extrinsic motivation.

For those of you interested in knowing more about extrinsic motivation (organismic integration theory) or how principals talk to teachers about inclusion, you may consider reading our paper in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership called “Self-Determination and Inclusion: The Role of Canadian Principals in Catalyzing Inclusive-Positive Practices.”

*** Ever wonder why something like Multiple Intelligences seems to have such sticking power while educators ignore and miss out on much more effective frameworks? If you are also interested in knowing more about the path from theory to practice, grab a copy of Jack Schneider’s book “From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education.” Anyone who works in education would benefit from Schneider’s description of the convoluted and sometimes counter-intuitive path by which ideas move from the ether of theory into classroom practice.

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