External vs Internal Drive

Motivation is a key factor in completing almost any task.  Without it we feel purposeless, fatigued, bored, and mediocre, but with it we find ourselves capable of achieving the most insurmountable of tasks.  While motivational factors fall into two categories, external and internal, the results of each on performance and achievement have vastly different implications and long-term effects.  Over my fifteen-year teaching career, I have seen a gradual shift in the education system from encouraging students to find their own internal motivation versus providing more external motivators in the form of tangible results.  The paradigm shift from achievement-focused grading systems to standards-based grading, which is defined as measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives, allows students to focus on whether or not they have attained certain skill sets in a pass/fail measurement as opposed to traditional letter-based grades.  While there are many pros and cons for each system, the real test will be what students do after they leave school.

While my students are completing book one of Fellowship this week, it has allowed me to reflect on how this project is affecting their external and internal drive.  As explained on the blog, the genesis of this project was completely student-driven.  My students chose to take on the challenge of reading Lord of the Rings despite the fact that many of them have below-grade-level reading abilities and could certainly coast along with much simpler reading materials.  They have chosen to invest half of a school year completing this task.  There are no external rewards being offered for this assignment.  No pizza parties promised, no free grades, no letters of commendation or guarantees of any type, except the pure pleasure of reading.  In other words, one can only conclude that my students are reading this book because they desire the knowledge and sense of personal achievement that can only be gained through learning.

As we are approaching the time in the school year where students are required to demonstrate their knowledge in all subject areas on standardized-tests, our class reading time is becoming a bit sporadic.  My students have been unable to attend class several times in the last few weeks due to mandatory practice-tests, school assemblies, and student events, which although necessary, are delaying our progress on the book.  Throughout these interruptions, my students’ reactions are reinforcing to me that their motivation for completing Lord of the Rings is internally driven.  Earlier this week, my attendance was needed at a school event which prevented me from being able to teach my students.  While I could have left them in their classroom to complete busy work, my students actually chose to come to this assembly with me and quietly read to each other in the back of the cafeteria.  I glanced back ever so often to see how they were doing and happily observed them taking turns reading.  They completed another chapter in what would have amounted to wasted time.

Both Nori and Thorin, whose language abilities are more limited due to their recent arrival in the United States, are required to undergo alternative assessment measures requiring them to complete extensive student-work portfolios demonstrating their proficiency in reading a variety of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction materials.  Not wishing to sacrifice their ring time to work on these portfolios, they have chosen to spend both their lunch and recess in my classroom completing their work instead of frolicing outdoors in our unseasonably warm spring weather every day this week.  These are not characteristic behaviors for many of their native English-speaking peers.  What I love about my students is their dedication, their determinedness, and drive, which are advantages that being from another country may provide them with.

Having begun my teaching career working with predominantly monolingual American students, there is a world of difference between working with native-English speakers and an immigrant population.  My students come from a a variety of backgrounds with varied educational experiences.  I have encountered adolescent students who never held a pencil in their lives, students who were not allowed to attend school because of their gender, and students who walked great distances just to get to a school.  When you have to encounter such adverse conditions just to gain an education, it makes you very appreciative of knowledge. After entering the ESL classroom, I quickly discovered the hunger that these students had for learning compared to their privileged American counterparts.  While many ask me why I would want to work with a population of students that will likely not perform well on assessments or constantly need instructional remediation, I feel I must offer these at-risk students enriching and challenging material because they need it more than any other group of students.  Great literature should not be reserved for the gifted.

The greater concern for me, as an educator, is that an emphasis on the external may be driven by the subliminal messages children are given today when they are looked at as mere test scores rather than individuals by educational policies that encourage teachers to teach to the test, as was recently brought to light by the Atlanta standardized test cheating scandal. I can’t help but wonder if focusing on results and appearances encourages this type of thinking in impressionable, young minds.  What is concerning is that students who strictly focus on outward achievements to measure their success will be greatly disappointed when they enter the work-force.  While some professions provide regular feedback on job-performance and reward bonuses for advancing within one’s field, many do not.  Professional development should be attained because one wants to continue to excel for their own benefit.  Students who have been groomed to expect a “cookie” every time they complete homework, take a test, or read a book, I’m afraid, may face a great disillusionment once they acquire their first job.

While Tolkien may teach many things, I feel the greatest lesson my students may gain from his works is the internal drive to go on to read even more challenging books.  Through exposure to great writers, I hope many of them will see the value of reading and realize that it is the foundation of acquiring knowledge in all areas, which should be a lifetime pursuit through the continuous process of improving their minds.  Though it is nice to receive external rewards and an occasional pat-on-the-back,  I hope that today’s students can still enjoy the lesson that learning simply for the enjoyment of gaining knowledge is the greatest reward one can achieve.



  1. English Teacher Takes Students Through Middle-earth | Tolkien Studies Blog - April 15, 2013

    […] Maybe the most heartening anecdote is the most recent (at the time of this writing), where Holly shares her frustration with occasional disruptions of the class schedule, but her joy at seeing her students carry on when she is called away. Read External vs Internal Drive. […]

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