The Educator’s Catch-22

A few years ago, I decided to begin my Composition 2 course by asking students to explore their personal feelings about writing classes. Their essays reported a fair amount of fear and anxiety, but the number one emotion mentioned, by a landslide, was boredom. Even worse, this boredom had nothing to do with the subject of writing, per say. Instead these students were bored with the topics their instructors assigned.

Being somewhat Pollyannaish at the time, I was convinced I could cure these students. I decreed that, henceforth, students would generate topics based on their passions, hobbies, and curiosities. It was going to be the end of boredom in the classroom! No more slumped shoulders and heavy eye-lids, only engaged students powered by intrinsic motivation.

There was only one problem: no one told me about the Educator’s Catch-22.

At first, after I encouraged them to select their own topics, the students were visibly relieved. Instead of “Should the United States Armed Forces serve as policemen of the world?” they could explore subversive themes in the lyrics of their favorite rock bands. Instead of “Is social media eliminating privacy?” they could study the effects of technology on Nazi Germany, if they felt so inclined. “Follow your interests!” I said ad nauseam. Surely, letting students write about issues close to their hearts would spark creativity and quash procrastination, right?


While I might have been spouting words like “inspiration” and “fun” and commanding students to “geek-out” on their guilty pleasures, I was still saying “due date” and “grades” and handing out assignment sheets as meticulously written as mortgage paperwork. By the end of the semester, I witnessed the same old tough slog to the finish line.

This is the Educator’s Catch-22. We want to teach students that learning is pleasurable and inner-motivation is ideal. However, we must do so within a framework built on assessment, authority, and economic realities. All of this generates stress, compliance, and (you guessed it) the need for external motivation.

In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, pilots must be deemed insane in order to be relieved of flying duties. Except that, of course, if a pilot wants out of his missions, it serves as clear evidence of his sanity:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

I believe that the ultimate goal of education is to inspire students to be life-long learners. In order to do this, they must develop intrinsic motivation. However, formal education operates largely on extrinsic motivation, which often suppresses intrinsic motivation.

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, a large body of research in economics and behavioral psychology demonstrates that punishments and rewards depress internal motivation and weaken results for any task involving at least “rudimentary cognitive skills.” That is, “carrots and sticks” may lead to faster ditch-digging, but not more innovation or better critical thinking. Furthermore, external motivation can drain the joy from any task.

For example, Pink cites a study from the 1970’s where children who enjoyed drawing during free time at day care were offered rewards to complete their work. After two weeks, the rewards stopped and researchers began observing the children through a two-way mirror. Those who had been receiving rewards started showing much less interest in drawing and spent considerably less time doing so.

By encouraging my students to bring their passions into the classroom (the dreaded arena of external motivation), I ran the risk of destroying their passions, sucking the life from them. As Pink reports, rewards can have a short term effect on compliance, but the long term effect is a loss of joy in the subject matter. If I encourage Tim, a flash mob junkie, to write a paper on the positive and negative uses of flash mobs, might I risk incentivizing his interests to death?

The difficult balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is nothing new. As Pink notes in Drive, Corporations like 3M and Google give their employees paid “free time” to work on whatever project they’d like. Entrepreneurs drop out of college (the supposed responsible path) to follow their dreams and chase big bucks. Academic wanderers audit courses to obtain knowledge instead of credits.

These individuals operate in a precarious place between freedom and authority, and new paradoxes arise: Employer-sanctioned goof-off sessions.  Highly-motivated drop-outs. High-risk behavior recorded carefully in a business plan. Such behavior defies categorization, but if the business world can create these ambiguous creative zones, then the education establishment can, too.

How do we teach intrinsic motivation in a system built on extrinsic motivation? How do we escape the Educator’s Catch-22? In the novel, Yossarian’s only option is to go AWOL. This might have been the road to success for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but most of our students work within the education system. Can we find a way to make the system work for them?


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