Thoughts on students’ base needs and grading systems

The Intrinsic Motivation Fallacy by Andrzej Marczewski

I began gamifying my classroom 4 years ago with my Ci2PHER storyline, that evolved into the National ReConstitution Project a year later, and I am now in my 2nd year of the History Underground. In that time I have lead Conference Sessions, Gamification Professional Developments, have written several blog posts, and participated in and hosted Twitter chats, and appeared on a podcast for other websites. I just looked and my first blog post for this site was on October 22, 2016 and over the last 10 months I have published over 70 posts. This is not to brag (ok, maybe a little), but rather to explain an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for awhile. This is a lot of work

Please don’t misunderstand, I really enjoy writing and teaching others about game inspired design. It can be hard at times but it is also meditative and has helped me to grow as an educator. The work is not the issue; what I have been thinking about is the surprising freedom I feel to do all this. Of course, I have a supportive wife and family as well as a Principal that has been an advocate but that is not really what I’ve been thinkimg about lately. The factor that I have been thinking about most can be found in the Marczewski article linked to above – I have enough security, (financial, health, etc) to invest my mental energy into creative and critical thinking beyond just mere survival.

If I am reading the article correctly, I believe that what Marczewski is explaining is that before people can mentally invest in creative thinking they must first have their “base needs” covered. Health, Security, Safety, and Physiological needs must be secure before the RAMP (relatedness, autonomy, mastery, and purpose) internal motivators can be truly motivating. In other words, if I did not have the ability to pay my mortgage or I felt physically ill I would not have the capacity to engage in the deep creative and critical thinking necessary to accomplish all of the things listed above while also teaching full time. It is the adequate base level external motivation of my pay check and health benefits that allow the internal RAMP motivations to be engaged with.

I truly hope that you are still reading and that you have thought about this in your own lives. This has been on my mind for a couple of reasons. The first is that in every school we have children living in poverty. By definition, their base level needs are not being met. I’m not good at the touchy feely relationship stuff like some other teachers so this is my analytical mind at work. Research seems to show that poverty itself can cause poor decisions. I also remember hearing then President Obama talk about why he only wore black or blue suits. He had read that every decision one makes mentally drains you for the next decision – a decision fatigue kicks in and over time more poor decisions are made. So rather than worry about wardrobe choices he decided to focus on bigger issues like DACA or universal healthcare. 

The latest buzzword in education is “relationships” and it is treated like a silver bullet; as if lesson plans and content knowledge have no place in a classroom. What the original goal behind the buzzword is though is the need to understanding the difficulties when students do not having baseline needs met. If a student is hungry or slept in their car it will effect their decision making and creativity. This is, from what I can tell anacdotally, conventional wisdom. My second thought though is probably more controversial – in an academic context grades are a student’s financial security.

My guiding principle on social media is to assume all teachers have good intentions so bear with me. In the most basic sense a pay check is fair compensation for well done work. In the classroom from a student’s perspective, might their grade represent the compensation? In a very real sense the grade dies have implications on their financial future. In South Carolina a student can earn college grants worth thousands of dollars based in their GPA. At my school students can take dual enrollment classes and earn college credits and potentially an associates degree. When this transfers (literally) across the street to the 4 year university it will save them (at current rates) about $45,000. My point is that students deserve a fair grading system which awards compensates them for the work they do, the skills they master, and the content knowledge they demonstrate. I would also suggest that grades not be used as a punishment or used to teach some arbitrary sense of responsibility. I have heard to often that we must have due dates because that is what ots like in the real world. Sure, this is true; however last year I submitted an important piece of paperwork a bit late after a reminder from my Principal. I was not docked a minute of pay. I also had to leave work early a few times because I had a sick child at day care. Not once was I punished for leaving 20 mins early. If we begin to see grades from a student’s point of view it might be possible to treat them as the security needed to unlock creativity and critical thinking that we all want them to achieve. I know that there are fears of the Overjustification Effect – that if we reward students for learning then we will kill their love of learning. This is a real concern especially with some of the external motivators like Badges. This feels different although I don’t have any scientific basis for this thought. My logic goes like this though. I love teaching and by extension teaching others about how I teach. I would not be able to do the latter if I did not have adequate security from doing the former. How many teachers would continue teaching if their paycheck was taken away? Do we all of a sudden blame Overjustification Effect that your love of teaching has been murdered? Of course not. If we can provide the basic security of a fair grade for fair work then maybe we can unlock the internal motivation and creativity we all want in our classrooms.

I won’t take the time here to advocate for my system though I feel that it meets the demands. I am sure that other teachers are working just as diligently to find solutions. Articles like Marczewski’s force me to reflect on some big concepts and how they relate my own practice. My two big takeaways from this piece of reflective writing are a hope that my classroom is filling some basic needs for students that need it outside of school and that my grading system is fair enough that students are able to engage with the internal motivation situations I try to design. Thanks for hanging in through my meandering ramble.

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