Rethinking Motivation In Education

Culture shock comes to the classroom in Doha, Qatar, where it's not enough to teach students that education can lead to a better life.

I often use this picture of my parents in pajamas, of one early Christmas morning when I had roused them at 5 a.m. to open gifts, in my talks, joking that this is how my parents looked when I told them I was dropping out of 5th grade.

But I couldn’t use this picture when I spoke in Doha, Qatar. The picture was censored by the organizers of the conference due to "cultural sensitivity." The problem, it turned out, was that my parents are touching in the photo. In Qatar, opposite sexes are not allowed to touch in public.

Given this censure, I expected life in Doha to be extremely stringent. When I landed and checked into my hotel, there was a dance party still going—at 2 a.m. on a Thursday evening. Maybe, I thought, Doha wasn’t so strict after all.

Over the course of the next two days of the conference I had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of teachers from Doha. Teachers, like all residents of Doha, are stratified into three social classes: Qatari nationals, Western expats, and non-Western expats. The rules are most strict for Qatar residents: Women are expected to wear full black hijabs, only allowing their eyes to peek through. However, Westerners don’t have to conform to the same rules of dress and are even allowed permits to buy alcohol. Female non-Western expats, in this case teachers from Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, are expected to wear head scarves, but are allowed to show their entire faces as opposed to just their eyes and wear colored headscarves.

Directly following my talk, I spoke with a group of Qatari women wearing black hijabs, with only their eyes showing. They asked good questions, and we had a nice interaction. As they turned and walked away, I noticed that under their black hijabs, they were wearing stiletto heels. As they walked out the door, they reached into their Prada bags and donned expensive sunglasses.

In the workshop I ran, the Qatari nationals were uninterested. They sat at the back of the room, and spent the entire time talking amongst themselves. Try as I might, I couldn’t engage them. I expressed my frustration to the conference organizer, but he just shrugged, explaining that this behavior is normal in Doha.

Expat teachers informed me that they have the exact same problem in their classrooms as I had in this workshop. Their students are broken into two groups: nationals and expats. The Qatari nationals, although only 1/5 of Doha residents, show little to no motivation in school because they are told by their parents, and by their government, that school doesn’t matter. They know that no matter what they do, no matter how poor their behavior or grades are, they will still receive their yearly allowance and property from the government upon reaching the age of majority. In Qatar—the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world—the teachers told me there is no incentive for Qatar nationals, for they are guaranteed a salary. Teachers are usually able to motivate students by explaining that education leads to a better life—higher social status, higher earnings, and more opportunities. But that isn’t true for Qatari nationals.

The teachers I met in Qatar repeatedly asked me, "How do we motivate people who have no incentive to learn?" The answer, I think, is that trying to motivate people is precisely the wrong approach. Trying to motivate someone means tying outcomes to rewards—and that doesn’t work when there are no rewards. Students are motivated only when they are learning for the joy of learning itself, not for external rewards or validation. The only way to encourage students to learn is by helping them build self-motivation to do so.

There are ways to do this within the traditional classroom setting, and it starts with putting the emphasis on the learner. Having students write learning journals where they set daily, weekly, and monthly goals gives them control over their education. Creating peer review boards, where students conference with each other and share their learning goals, creates a system of peer accountability. By implementing systems such as these, the emphasis is taken off of external pressure and is instead put on encouraging learning for learning’s sake.

Allowing students to set their own goals requires a leap of faith. Often teachers say to me, "What if they don’t want to learn anything?" The challenge lies in understanding that it’s okay if your students don’t want to do anything you deem "educational." What most teachers don’t realize is that it’s their job to encourage students to pursue their own interests. It shouldn’t be their job to force a particular subject on a student who clearly has no desire to learn it. As students pursue their own interests, the need to expand their knowledge arises naturally. Teachers should be there to help, not discourage.

It’s okay if they want to play video games all day. What teachers don’t realize is that even engaging in a theoretically mind-numbing activity like playing video games requires learning. It’s a totally different type of learning than typically happens in school, but it is learning nonetheless.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

[Editor's note: Dale Stephens is one of the inaugural Thiel Fellows who stopped going to college in exchange for a place in an innovative mentoring program. Read more from Dale—and about PayPal founder Peter Thiel's education experiment—here.]