The secrets of motivation: fear or enthusiasm?

An element which appears to be recurrently used in education (both at school and by parents, at home) is fear. Many a time, this is not necessarily a problematic element, but the specter of negative consequences for innapropriate behavior is rather common for the educational praxis. For instance, the student is told at school: ʽIf you don't study now, you will face the consequences later!ʼ. Then, at home, parents emphasize this with: ʽIf you don't do this, I will punish you!ʼ Is motivation by fear really efficient? We can indeed use fear as a motivator, but how can we do this concretely? Where and what are the risks of using it?
Let us see what the specialized literature has to say about this. Janis and Feshback issued a hypothesis according to which the audience of a speaker becomes more motivated to accept his statements if he uses a default level of fear (the induction of emotional tension). In order to test their hypothesis, the two authors conducted an experiment in which they were recommending the appropriate dental care. There were three situations where each message contained a few pieces of information on the effects of dental damage and some recommandations for a better dental care.
1. The message that intended to induce a high level of fear described to the subjects how dental infections can cause secondary infections that can lead to arthritic paralysis or complete blindness.
2. The message with a moderate level of fear was based on describing the common dangers of a poor dental hygiene.
3. Finally, the message with a low level of fear was centered on basic information about dental growth and functioning.
The authors noted that the most effective way to induce a proper dental hygiene to the subjects belonged to the message with a low level of fear. They argued that the message with a high level of fear irritated the subjects, who switched to a defensive behavior of avoidance. They became so frightened after listening to the message that they would rather avoid thinking about the whole issue.
What is the conclusion of this experiment? High levels of fear can cause inhibition.
Is fear nonetheless a powerful motivator?
Coon asks us to answer the following question: how can we learn to enjoy the activities that seem unpleasant or even ʽfrighteningʼ at the beginning? Why do some people jump with a parachute and others bathe in frozen lakes in winter? Fear should have motivated us to choose the exact opposite behavior. What internal spring is triggered – through learning – so that we can overcome this initial inhibition? Are there any other elements that can provide a positive emotional motivation?
The answer is quite simple and can be implemented right away. It is all about developing enthusiasm. (Strong) enthusiasm can be considered a highly intense emotional motivator with an extremely fast level of activation. 


Effective Motivation: a Candy or a Word?

Throughtout the past few years, extrinsic motivation has been approached from two different perspectives: on the one hand, it has been used by parents and teachers with the only purpose of "controlling" their children and on the other hand, it was regarded as entirely useless, since the student must come to learn just "for the pleasure of it".
Both perspectives are probably correct as long as we approach them from the right angle. It is not advisable for a parent to condition learning by an extrinsic motivator ("I will buy you X if you get an A). For that matter, research has shown the inefficiency of such a perspective in various areas (not only the educational one).
Many a time, external rewards earned by an individual tend to weaken his personal interests, his joy and his satisfaction, since the person in question does something for purposes other than the thing itself (Huffman, Vernoy, Williams and Vernoy). For instance, the companies that offer substantial discounts on purchasing their products during a promotional campaign (extrinsic motivation) sometimes notice that after withdrawing the promotion, many buyers who had purchased their product at a lower price do not remain loyal to that product.
We were stating though that the truth is much more complex than that. The specialized literature, through the perspective of several researchers (Ryan Deci on the one hand and Manderlink Harackiewicz on the other hand) pointed up that external rewards do not invariably reduce the intrinsic interest for an activity. A positive extrinsic motivation occurs when the reward is based on competence and comes after achieving an outstanding performance; in this case, the reward is not a prize for simply engaging in an activity. A reward for competence produces a strong feeling of pride and can support the individual in his desire to have a similar future performance.
Furthermore, as noted by another researcher (Carlson), many of the reinforcements / rewards we receive are not direct, but they are related to our behavior. Thus, if a child tells a story properly, he can be extrinsically motivated by receiving a candy. However, a form of positive external motivation can indeed occur in this activity (although it can no longer fall so easily into extrinsic motivation) if the child is rewarded based on his audience's interest in his story.

To conclude, although a "candy" is easy to buy, it does not have such a high efficiency. Not even a whole bag of candies or the bike most wanted by your child. However, if you show interest in what he does, praise him for his success and show joy whenever he reaches a success (even a small one), then there are chances for you to be on the right track. 


How to develop an emotional connection with our students

The first days of school bring along a resumption of relationships within the parent-child-teacher
triangle. Many a time, regardless of what the law provides, classes continue to be crowded. This is one of the first impediments in developing a profound emotional bond between teachers and students. What can you do when you have too many students in your class? How can you divide your attention to multiple activities and how can you provide support (both instructive – for the subject you teach, and emotional – whenever the student needs it)?
The large number of students in class is only an objective factor. There are however other factors, for instance, the mindset of some teachers according to which being ʽtoo closeʼ to a student may disrupt the natural relationship between teachers and students. To put it bluntly, if a teacher opens himself to his students and allows them to share their problems, he will then be perceived as a ʽsoftʼ person and the students will try to ʽhobnobʼ with him.
We don't deny that such a result is possible, but if it turns to be so, it is only the teacher's fault. Developing an emotional connection with students doesn't make a dent in the teacher's authority. On the contrary, he will gain even more credibility from his students. Nonetheless, he must always pay attention to the message he sends to his students: he is not their friend and he never hangs his ʽschool coatʼ in a rack; he continues to be a teacher, but a friendly one, who cares for his students. Such an attitude will definitely be properly perceived and appraised by students. Everything is based on a viewpoint that belongs not only to an educational environment, but to all human beings. A stunning example, that can be found in the specialized literature, will convince you of this.
George Kohlrieser (2007), a researcher with an extensive practical experience in hostage negotiations, cites a story from J. C. Pearce's book, Magical Child. The main character in the story is a grandmother from Kansas. One day, when she is home alone with her nine year old granddaughter, she finds herself in the room with a man armed with a bat. The grandmother doesn't lose her temper and behaves as gently as possible. She offers the man food, dry clothes and a place to sleep. Then she goes to bed with her granddaughter. The next morning, she realizes the man has already disappeared. The police officers who arrive at her doorstep tell the grandmother how the man is actually a psychopathic killer who has murdered a family from a nearby house. What was the behaviour that led to saving the grandmother and her granddaughter? The answer lies within customizing a relationship: developing an emotional connection with the intruder. For that matter, Kohlrieser concludes: people do not kill other people, but things and objects.

Conclusion: It is difficult to react negatively to a known person. The more we know someone, the harder it gets to show an inappropriate behaviour on his part. A fair teacher will open himself to his students just as much as he considers necessary for teaching his subject successfully. Then again, a successfull teacher will not be afraid of developing an emotional connection with his students. 


Too much self-esteem?

We have often talked about the major role that self-esteem plays in our children's education. Children with high self-esteem are more ready to overcome difficult situations and are constantly prepared for success. Sometimes however, too much self-esteem...hurts.
It has been noted as a general human bias that every individual sees the world in relation to himself, invests himself with more qualities that he actually possesses and tries to build up a comfortable self-image. Dave Barry observes this phenomenon in a variety of situations:
·         nine out of ten managers consider themselves better than the other managers' average
·         nine out of ten teachers assess themselves as being better than their peers' average
·         most of the drivers – even those who were hospitalized after an accident – consider they have better driving skills than the drivers' average.
This phenomenon occurs in a whole range of situations (as Smith and Mackie point out, 2007): thus, 70% of the students who were questionned for a study considered themselves to have better leading skills than average and 60% of the students stated the same thing about their athletic skills. But this is impossible to be true! The authors appeal to a metaphor to emphasize this issue we are currently facing; quoting the humorist Garrison Keillor, they state: „All the children are above average!”

 for some of the subjects the feedback was positive; they were told that the ʽpartner'sʼ appreciation was ʽAn excellent essay!ʼThere are also other researches that have highlighted the importance of a high self-esteem based on overrated self (called ʽthe narcissism effectʼ). It was noted that if attacked, a person with this type of self-esteem tends to develop a much more agressive response than people with low self-esteem. Bushman and Baumeister asked the participants in their study to write an essay which would later be shown to another participant (in fact, there was no such participant and the feedback was provided by the researchers themselves):

2.  the other subjects received a negative feedback: ʽThe worst essay I have ever read!ʼ
Subsequently the participants were given the chance to punish their partners, within a competitive game, by giving forth an unpleasant noise whose level they were free to establish according to their own will: conclusions showed that the participants with a high level of narcissism (even those who had received a positive feedback) proved themselves even more agressive than those with a low level of narcissism who had received a negative feedback.

One final comment: the first time you tell your child / student that he is the best, remember to do so only after an appropriate behaviour. If such a praise occurs too often and is unjustified, you risk doing more harm than good!


How to criticize – 3 rules on the art of persuasion

Many a time, criticism turns out to be the most accessible tool for an educator (whether he is a parent or a teacher) whenever he wants to change the student's behavior. When we criticize, we touch somebody on a raw spot and most of the times the outcome may be the opposite of what we wanted. Perhaps it's better to focus on praising people, on the way we can make people feel better whenever their behavior is satisfactory, rather than repeatedly penalizing their negative conduct.
Nonetheless criticism sometimes appears to be the only handy solution. But if we still need to criticize, it is advisable to identify a series of elements that should be taken into consideration. We must not forget that people don't like being criticized and that is why we ought to consider those undertones, those elements that can help us not step into a situation worse than the one before.
1.      It is useful to criticize the behavior and not the person. Don't say "You are mean!", but "This thing you are doing is wrong." A man can indeed change his behavior if he is driven enough to do so, but he can't change completely!
2.      Criticism must be confidential. Other people should not witness criticism and the person in question should not be pointed at as the "negative example". A man will accept criticism more easily if he doesn't bear the weight of being watched, which can make him feel a negative sensation of pressure.
3.      When we criticize we must control our nonverbal behavior. There is no need to emphasize the negative elements using a cold and contentious tone. We shouldn't frown or take an aggressive stance (such as standing with arms akimbo). On the contrary, we should have a positive attitude (pay attention however not to smile, as you could confuse your child: he won't know anymore if you are upset with him or you just pretend to be). There are though other elements that can be used successfully when criticizing: for instance, a friendly touch on the arm can be helpful. This gesture will improve communication and will make criticism more easily to be accepted and dealt with. Here are three probative experiments:
a)      As a human rule, touching provides a fertile framework for developing a positive attitude. R. V. Joule and L. Beavois conducted an experiment for that purpose. Inside a campus, an experimenter asked different students to give him directions to a certain destination. Some of them were "accidentally" touched on the arm and some of them not. All the students in question showed him the way to his destination. A little further, another experimenter asked the same students for a similar favor. It was noted that 40% of the students who had been touched on the arm agreed to guide the latter experimenter, compared to only 5% of those who hadn't been touched.
b)      In another experiment, Whitcher and Fisher noted that out of a number of patients who had been explained how their surgery would come off, the ones who had been lightly touched on their arm by the nurse showed beneficial effects like: they understood the given information better, they were less stressed and they perceived the entire hospitalization more positively than those who hadn't been touched.

c)      At last, Wheldall, Bevan and Shortall conducted an experiment of great pedagogical significance. These researchers noted that the students who were lightly touched on the arm by the teacher while they were being praised showed 60% less undisciplined behavior and 20% more involvement in the given tasks than the students who were praised without being touched.

Above all, we must always remember the purpose of our criticism, which is to change a certain behavior in our child / student and not to feel satisfied after he has done something that hurt or annoyed us.