Montessori Elementary Philosophy Reflects Current Motivation Theories

By Murray, Angela | Montessori Life, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Montessori Elementary Philosophy Reflects Current Motivation Theories


Murray, Angela, Montessori Life


Student motivation, or lack thereof, is a popular topic in discussions about the challenges of modern education. Teachers wonder how best to motivate students; parents wonder why their children are not motivated to do well in school; and the popular media laments a general trend toward student disengagement. Motivation is a crucial concept in education because it has been shown to influence interest, excitement, and confidence, which in turn enhance performance, persistence, creativity, and general well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Because of the crucial role that motivation can play in educational success, research on motivation is prolific. Pintrich contends that "motivational research can appear to be fragmented and diffuse" (2003, p. 667). In fact, several authors have constructed theoretical frameworks by examining empirical results across diverse studies of motivation. Although studies specific to Montessori environments have not investigated motivation directly, much research has addressed the concept of student motivation in other settings.

The conceptual frameworks of authors Ryan and Deci (2000), Seifert (2004), and Pintrich (2003) share similar elements and can be used as a basis for linking Montessori elementary practice and motivation theory. These authors highlight the types of educational experiences that enhance student motivation, many of which are core elements of the Montessori approach to elementary education.

While Maria Montessori may not have addressed motivation directly, she focused on fostering children's enthusiasm for learning (1989). She said, "Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand . . . but to so touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core. We do not want complacent pupils, but eager ones." (Montessori, 1989, p. 11). She believed that "the child should love everything he learns, for his mental and emotional growths are linked" (Montessori, 1989, p. 17). Surely, a discussion of motivation as it relates to Montessori education is due.

Contemporary Views of Motivation

A review of authors providing a unifying structure across studies of motivation yields consistent characteristics that tend to enhance motivation: interest, competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Pintrich, 2003; Ryan & Deci, 2000, Deci & Ryan, 2008; Seifert, 2004). As a means of laying the groundwork for a subsequent discussion integrating Montessori elementary practice with motivation theory, the paragraphs that follow briefly summarize these authors' perspectives and demonstrate their common threads. Figure 1 (see next page) provides an outline of key elements across the three organizing structures.

Ryan and Deci

A lively debate raged in the psychological literature of the 1990s regarding the potential negative impact of external reinforcers like rewards and punishments on intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 1996; Ryan & Deci, 1996). The debate was based on the assumption that internal and external motivation were antithetical to one another. Recent articles, however, outline an integrated view (Lepper et al, 2005). Ryan and Deci's (2000) SeIfDetermination Theory proposes a continuum of motivation orientation. In this model, intrinsic motivation remains a completely internalized function, while extrinsic motivation can range from being fully internalized to completely external (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Deci and Ryan say that when people are intrinsically motivated they "perform activities because of the positive feelings resulting from the activities themselves" (Deci & Ryan, 2008, p. 15).

The key distinguishing feature of intrinsic motivation is interest (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Deci and Ryan (2008) acknowledge the critical role of interest in intrinsic motivation by pointing out that "people will be intrinsically motivated by activities that hold interest for them, activities that have the appeal of novelty, challenge, or aesthetic value" (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. …

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