One of the most interesting and puzzling dilemmas in thinking about creativity and schools is the relationship between creativity and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, of course, is defined as the motivation to do something for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure or satisfaction of the task. A runner may run marathons for the joy of it; a writer may be driven to bring a story to life. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the motivation to do something for an external reward—a paycheck, a sticker, a pizza party. Obviously, both kinds of motivation are important, both in school and in the rest of the world.
But if we are interested in enhancing creativity, intrinsic motivation is particularly important. Much of the basic research on this link was done by Dr. Teresa Amabile, currently at the Harvard Business School. While the relationship she identified is a bit complex, the bottom line is this: Intrinsic motivation is important in the development of creativity—and extrinsic motivation can squash it.
So what kinds of things help build intrinsic motivation—and what does any of this have to do with assessment? Intrinsic motivation is enhanced by interest—aren’t you more motivated by tasks you find intriguing? We also tend to be more intrinsically motivated as we feel ourselves building competence. Think about a time you gained a skill. As your budding abilities brought a sense of progress—whether at bread-baking, piano-playing, or golf—you were more likely to persist and continue to improve. A third key to intrinsic motivation is a sense of choice and self-determination. I know I am much more likely to feel motivated about a task of my own choosing rather than one assigned to me. It is much easier to sit down to write this blog, which I do for my own interest and enjoyment, than to face up to the looming book revisions, which have a deadline!
Now think for a minute about how we have typically “motivated” students in schools. School motivation leans almost entirely to the extrinsic, with an emphasis on test scores, grades, stickers, and other kinds of rewards. And to what do we typically attach these rewards? Our assessments! The way assessments are selected, administered, and used may be the number one factor in determining the type of atmosphere in our classrooms—and the type of motivation it develops.
So, as we begin to think about assessment FOR creativity, we need to think about how—at least part of the time—we can include assessments that are interesting and include some aspect of choice. We need to think about how the assessments can be administered so that they help students gauge their growing competence. What might that look like? How about a performance assessment (or “Performance of Understanding”) in which students demonstrate their understanding of ecosystems by creating and analyzing a fantasy ecosystem for a planet of their choice? By asking students to use concepts like producers, consumers, and decomposers in an entirely new situation, teachers gain valuable insight into students’ understanding of the ideas. If such an assessment is administered well, students are given specific feedback that allows them to identify their areas of growth and continued needs. It not only allows for creativity in the task itself, but it supports the type of motivation that allows students to be more creative. Of course not everything can be assessed in this way, but we need enough creativity and intrinsic motivation-friendly assessments that they shape the climate and culture of our classrooms. It’s a big task, but it is worth it.