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Joining the dots: Why investing in teacher motivation matters more than ever

Joining the dots: Why investing in teacher motivation matters more than ever

Joining the dots: Why investing in teacher motivation matters more than ever

The existing evidence on why teacher motivation matters and the most effective ways to foster it is messy. STiR Education says we need to cut through the complexity and rethink intrinsic motivation to give it the attention it deserves.

A staggering shortage of 70 million teachers and high levels of burnout and attrition pose an existential challenge for education systems around the world to deliver quality education.

The needs of students today are arguably greater than ever: in addition to the learning crisis, we see increasing evidence of children’s need for support in their social-emotional development and mental health.

Teachers are also expected to be brokers of conversations around highly complex social issues such as climate change, gender inequality and social justice. While understandable, these expectations place huge demands on teachers.

If we want to ensure we have the schools our children need, it’s vital these challenges be addressed in unison.

Teacher intrinsic motivation is a powerful lens to develop solutions as its explicit focus can change how teachers feel about the profession, while also ensuring their voices are heard.

Defining intrinsic motivation

The importance of intrinsic motivation may seem self-evident, yet it’s remarkable how little attention it receives in educational research and programming. Current evidence for the relationship between teachers’ intrinsic motivation and children’s learning is promising, but limited.

There are several possible reasons for this lack of attention, but perhaps the most important is that ‘intrinsic motivation’ is conceptually messy–a messiness that is off-putting for policy-makers, funders, researchers and implementing organizations.

Intrinsic motivation is understood differently across academic disciplines, sometimes leading to contradictory research findings as a result. For instance, cognitive neuroscientists might argue that rewards are important because they trigger neurochemical reactions associated with intrinsic motivation; yet behavioral economists suggest that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation over time.

It’s clear we need to develop a shared understanding of intrinsic motivation as it relates to teachers to compellingly improve children’s learning. This is the core of our work at STiR Education, where our mission is to ensure that every child is taught by a motivated teacher.

We do this by working with governments to design and deliver transformational professional development at scale. In just over a decade of operations, we have grown from a pilot of 25 teachers in Delhi to reach over 550,000 in India, Uganda and Indonesia.

Joining the dots

How to foster teacher motivation

To navigate the complexity surrounding teacher motivation, we anchor our programming by answering these 2 questions: what does an intrinsically motivated teacher actually do? And what wider conditions need to be in place for them to do it?

Defining intrinsic motivation in terms of teacher behaviors has allowed STiR to assess whether these behaviors are changing over time and how they relate to children’s learning. Core behaviors include: whether teachers try new teaching strategies in class, engage in professional development and meaningfully participate in classroom observation.

We have also learned that 3 key conditions need to be in place to unlock intrinsic motivation, as suggested by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory: autonomy, mastery and purpose. For teachers, we understand these as follows:

  • Autonomy: Do teachers feel they get to make meaningful decisions in their work?
  • Mastery: Do teachers experience a sense of progress and improvement over time?
  • Purpose: Do teachers feel connected to their managers, peers and children with a sense of shared mission?

Cultivating these conditions is not easy, especially at scale, but it is possible when we share the importance of intrinsic motivation with school staff at every level, and engage them in building the conditions for it to thrive. This is why we work with and through government systems in multi-year partnerships to embed the approach over time.

The results are promising: both our internal monitoring and external evaluations of our work show not only positive changes in teacher behavior, but also in children’s learning across academic and social-emotional domains.

We need to solve not just the global learning crisis, but also the global teaching crisis – and to do so, we will need to think boldly and differently. Clarifying our understanding of teacher intrinsic motivation and how to embed it within education programming at scale can be transformative for both.