Over the winter break I finished reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. It was a quick read that was recommended by several people because it has educational implications. While it does, I am left wondering if Pink plans on doing any additional research into instructional motivation, which you'd think there'd be plenty of literature on already (but there isn't).
The really important stuff in this book is that people are more intrinsically motivated when they have control over what their task is, who they do it with, and when they do it. And while you can't give students complete freedom in any of these areas, you can give them options over tasks (hopefully those tasks address similar standards that the students have to learn), who their group partners are (or whether they work alone), and when during the day, week, month, or quarter they do the work. Clearly, some of that will be content-dependent, since some math topics have to go in a sequence, but many language arts topics can follow the needs of the student in a variety of sequences.
Another really interesting thing was the discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In teacher preparation programs across the country, pre-service teachers are told that intrinsic motivation is the goal and that extrinsic motivation is probably not a good thing. So...now what do I do? Pink makes the interesting distinction that extrinsic motivation, such as points, stickers, trips to the prize box, or whatever, are useful for algorithmic tasks or tasks that have to be done but won't ever be the result of an intrinsically motivated class. On the other hand, heuristic tasks (and I'd say that real learning falls into this category) is actually HARMED by the use of extrinsic motivators. While you may get what you want, you might only get the minimum you requested instead a sky's-the-limit sort of thing. This is stuff worth thinking about.
With teachers increasingly told what to do and how to do it, it will be interesting to see how many teachers embrace this sort of thinking in a way we can all see it. I know that teachers often do things that Pink might applaud, but they do them quietly because they aren't really part of the mainstream of educational thinking.