Intrinsic Motivation Means Student Engagement

When students create art about things they are learning, we call that arts integration. This approach to teaching routinely works to engage ALL children in a classroom in learning, something that is clearly not true of the “drill and kill” methods that politicians prefer.

Students making choices

Students making choices

Suddenly, there are no students hiding out in the back of the room or with their heads down on their desks. Everyone is busy creating, making meaning through an art form. But why does it work so well? What is the magic elixir that fuels this creative engine and results in clearly increased student understanding?

Based on my 35 years of experience learning about arts integration by doing it, I contend that the secret is intrinsic motivation. That is, the desire to engage, the need to see the creative process through, that comes from inside each person.

This is very different from the “carrot and stick” approach that elected officials prefer. They prefer it because they don’t understand teaching and learning. They are products of the factory system of education, and they can’t see outside that set of literal boxes. So they propose financial incentives for teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, and punitive measures for those whose students struggle, ignoring environmental and cultural factors that make a lie of those test results. if your classroom has a high percentage of Asian Americans? You can expect to get that bonus. If you teach in New Orleans, in a 100% African American school (privatized so corporations can make a profit off of poverty), you can expect your evaluation will be in the tank, because your kids’ test scores are just not going to break into positive numbers.

Even when students are “succeeding” by these measures, the teacher must endure being told what to teach, how to teach it, and when to teach it. No wonder so many skilled and dedicated teachers are abandoning the field, and no wonder so many new teachers (more than a quarter of them) don’t last five years. (The link is to a study that purports to show things are not dire, but I think a 25% attrition rate is abysmal.)

Arts Integration Levels the Playing Field

Arts integration invites all students to creatively play with knowledge to build understanding about complex ideas. Students make use of whatever pre-existing knowledge they have and absorb new information in the process of creating meaning.

Students willingly engage, because play is the natural choice for learning. When animals play, they are practicing. They are learning to use their bodies and minds in ways that will help them survive. So it is with the human animal.

Daniel Pink, the brilliant thinker and writer, proposes in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” that three factors make up intrinsic motivation. I propose that arts integration strategies, by their nature, provide these factors. An arts-integrated lesson becomes fertile ground for students to self-regulate their behavior, because they naturally want to play, with just enough guidance to keep them safe and directed towards learning.

The three factors are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Let’s look at how arts integration makes room for each in a lesson.

Motivation 3.0: Autonomy – Mastery – Purpose. Motivation 3.0 moves the focus from the 'reward-punishment' compliance approach of the 20th Century to an 'engagement' model that is better suited to workplaces of 21st century economies. Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are over shown as overlapping elements of this model.Autonomy

When we talk about autonomy, we are talking about student choice. The arts can be an aid to learning when we use them as mnemonic devices (e.g. “The ABC Song”). But when students are shown how to create in an art form, they get to be in the driver’s seat, to make creative choices. They choose how to frame their idea, how to explore or explain it artistically, and how to build it so that it communicates to others.

The power of choice is in engaging every student, while challenging them to make their meaning clear through the art form at hand. They now have ownership over their understanding, and they have had a chance to choose how to demonstrate it.

For example, in a traditional music class, a student learns the tried-and-true ways of making melodies and harmonies, practicing skills in rote fashion in order to become a better instrumentalist. But in an arts-integrated lesson involving musical instruments, perhaps students construct their own out of found materials, learning which sounds are pleasing to them, and which ones their creations can make. Then they explore putting those sounds into a sequence and relationship that tells a story — all without worrying about “wrong” notes as defined by an arbitrary notation system.

But they do want to get better at using those instruments. They want to make their statement the best it can be. That in turn leads to the pursuit of…


We all naturally want to get better at things that are important to us. When it is suddenly important to craft a work of art so that it accurately and completely expresses an understanding we have come to, we want to make that expression the best we can make it.

Rather than practicing a skill first and putting it to use later, arts integration takes the opposite approach. Students learn how to create in an art form, and then they naturally start honing their skills, perfecting their ability to use the elements of the art to tell their own story.

Even more, they begin to notice and appreciate mastery in others. This is true in the classroom, where they note and celebrate each others’ successes. And it is true in the theater or gallery, where they see the work of professionals with new eyes. They now look with the eye of a choreographer, a composer, a sculptor, a playwright, an actor, a director.

But not just an artist’s eye! They also see now with the perspective of a mathematician, an historian, a scientist, a reporter, or an elected official. Arts-integrated challenges are real-world challenges that lead students to understand not only a complex idea about our world but also how an art form works at its essence, and how to use that art form to say something important.

Which brings up the idea of…


We all know that saying to a student, “You’ll need this in your later life,” is not going to fire them up to plunge into a skill-building session. There must be some discernible reason why we should care before we willingly engage in problem-solving.

Since we are asking students to take on a real-world role and solve a real-world problem through an artistic product, they see the purpose. They want to make meaning of all the information they’ve been exposed to, and the arts give them the tools to make a coherent whole out of those fragments of knowledge.

No one can absorb and remember all there is to know. Knowledge is the basis for understanding, but facts alone add up to nothing. When students see where the facts can take them, when they start to discern between important information and trivia, they are on the road to constructing deep understandings.

As you travel down the path of arts integration, here are three questions to ask yourself about your lesson plans, to both help you stay on the path and to bring your students along:

  • When do students make creative choices? (Autonomy)
  • How and when do students evolve their skills? (Mastery)
  • When and how do students discover why this is important? (Purpose)

If you keep these questions in mind as you plan, the magic will unfold.


About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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2 Responses to Intrinsic Motivation Means Student Engagement

  1. kimshope says:

    Randy this brilliant! I especially love how you explain that the Arts Levels the playing field!
    “Arts integration invites all students to creatively play with knowledge to build understanding about complex ideas. Students make use of whatever pre-existing knowledge they have and absorb new information in the process of creating meaning.”
    This is so true. In dance creation there is no right or wrong and that can empower the students to take more creative risks. This post has given me many ideas to implement in my in school dance classes as well as my Ballet classes. Thank you!

    • rbdancer says:

      Thank you, Kim! I’m so happy you found it helpful. I’ve been coaching some teaching artists on designing residencies and lessons, and that stimulated my thinking. I appreciate you taking time to comment. Happy dancing!

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