In “The Little Engine That Couldn’t,” we see the frustration that Russell Esky, a prototypical rookie teacher feels while working within the system to teach children, struggling to deal with motivation problems that spring forth from both the system and from external environments, but seemingly blaming his struggles on only himself and factors external to the system (at least he doesn’t blame the children). The story is written within the context of motivation, culture and diversity in education (probably from an education textbook of some sort, ironically), highlighting that educators understand that the “motivation” problem is debilitating to both teachers and students. I argue that for most children, the problem is not as difficult to overcome as educators make it seem, so long as schools and teachers are willing to change the way they view their role in the education of children, and in the way they treat children. One framework that can lead schools and teachers from this blame game to one of educating children is through the Goal Orientation Theory.
Goal Orientation Theory (“GOT”) is a “social-cognitive theory of achievement motivation” that focuses on why people engage in activities, and is particularly valuable when considering why students engage in academic work. For the purpose of this essay I will focus solely on students. GOT suggests that students may have one of two goal orientations: mastery or performance. Mastery goals lead to students focusing on learning or mastering a task; mastery is likely to be measured by some self-set standard or simply by the process of self-improvement. Performance goals, on the other hand lead to students focusing on demonstrating their ability or competence to others, primarily in regards to how their performance would stack up to others (or some understood standard). Performance goals are typically associated with comparison and competition, as opposed to self-improvement.
Goal Orientation Theory also suggests a different pair of goals that cuts across the aforementioned mastery and performance goals: approach-oriented or avoidance-oriented. This double-bifurcation leaves us with four possible combinations. Mastery approach-oriented goals motivate children to truly master academic tasks. Mastery avoidance-oriented goals motivate children to seek to avoid misunderstanding given tasks. Performance approach-oriented goals motivate children to demonstrate that they have more ability or competence than other children. Meanwhile, performance avoidance-oriented goals focused on avoiding to appear incompetent or stupid in the eyes of others.
Carol Dweck of Stanford University observed that children’s beliefs about their intelligence in concert with their goal orientations can alter the behavior of children with regards to academic tasks. While she found that children who believe that intelligence is modifiable tend to adopt mastery goals, and while children who believe their intelligence is fixed tend to adopt performance goals, sometimes children who adopt performance goals believe their intelligence is malleable and sometimes children who adopt mastery goals believe their intelligence is fixed. Interestingly, regardless of the view a child has of their intelligence, if they have mastery goals they are more likely to have high persistence and seek challenges in their learning behaviors. Children who have performance goals and a view that they are stuck with a low level of intelligence typically feel helpless in academic environments, they avoid challenge and they tend to have low persistence. Surprisingly though, children with performance goals and a view that they have a fixed level of intelligence, but high intelligence, are likely to behave in a mastery-oriented manner seeking challenges and persisting at academic tasks.
While it seems intuitive that we should hope for and promote mastery approach-oriented goals and a belief that intelligence is modifiable within children, sadly our schools actively promote performance goals and avoidance-orientation through grades, rankings, standardized curriculums that put children on the same track, grade-based classrooms, honor rolls, shaming and various designations that classify kids as smart or stupid, diligent or lazy. Unfortunately, the non-school adults in most kids’ lives also promote performance goals and avoidance-orientation, as well. If only family, friends and coaches knew how much they were preventing their children from realizing their academic “potential” by giving them money for making the honor roll, celebrating A’s while dismissing B’s and disapproving of C’s, and encouraging a kid to not say something “stupid” as opposed to simply encouraging and celebrating learning for learning sake.
Our intuition is right, mastery approach-oriented goals often results in deeper learning and almost always results in higher interest and persistence within a subject. Put another way, when kids are motivated to learn something because of a reward (grade) or punishment (looking stupid) there is often less learning that takes place and when the reward or punishment is removed the child is no longer motivated to engage in an academic task.
Russell Esky, if he understood Goal Orientation Theory, would have been able to better navigate his classroom and alter his approach to children in order to increase their learning, as well as their attitude toward learning. Interacting with the three girls who didn’t seem to have the motivation to start working on individual assignments, Esky sternly reminded them that they would produce an outline by the end of the day and they were not to collaborate. His tone of voice and deadline produced a performance goal for the children, and denying them the opportunity to collaborate ensures that the focus is more on command, control and accountability than it is on allowing learning to take place, naturally. Later on Esky dictates to the girls what they will write a report on. He is clearly setting a performance goal for them, not even allowing them to choose what sub-sections they may work on. His frustration with their procrastination and lack of ownership over their project leads Esky to further push the girls away from mastery goals.
Meanwhile, when working with Kevin, who has a low opinion of his intelligence, the last thing Esky should be doing is promoting the idea of simply doing the same drill over and over again. Kevin clearly doesn’t believe he is smart enough to do decimal multiplication problems, so Esky should be transitioning Kevin from production goals to mastery goals. Even if he doesn’t believe he is very intelligent, with a mastery goal mindset (free of comparisons to other students) Kevin should persist and eventually master the task. Paula, on the other hand, is performing tasks well but does not want to take credit for it, and also seems to have a low opinion of her intelligence, as well. Esky again focuses on performance by congratulating Paula on test scores, ensuring that unless he can convince Paula that she is able to increase her intelligence (what appears to be a long-shot hope because of parental messaging), will result in Paula losing interest in academic tasks and failing to perform, despite the fact that she would otherwise be better positioned than most in her class to do well according to the standards set forth by the current system.
Esky, like educators everywhere, should stop focusing on the test, and start focusing on mastery. They should stop rewarding and punishing children for their performance, and instead simply encourage learning. When children can move toward mastery goals and approach-orientation, and when children are able to recognize that their intelligence is malleable, then educators can focus on promoting real learning as the children will be primed and ready for it.