Last week, I wrote a post about alternatives to incentives in the classroom. In my own work, I've found "explicit, incessant discussion of why content is important" and "logical consequences, both positive and negative" to motivate students in powerful ways, especially when practiced school-wide.
Gewertz' post points toward an important third tool for building up successful, intrinsically motivated students: helping students see their own progress. I'll call this "the light bulb about the light bulb." Although students make progress all the time, they often need help to SEE and understand that progress themselves. Helping students see the light bulb about their own light bulbs has led to some pretty powerful moments in my own teaching. For example, when Dewan (pseudonym) buckled down and applied new skills to a piece of his writing, a subject he usually finds frustrating, he excitedly raised his hand to show me the product. To drive home his own growth, I pulled out a much less accomplished story he wrote the week before, and asked him to name some of the differences. His expression shifted, from in-the-moment elation to thoughtful pride. By naming how his own work had improved, I think Dewan began to generalize his feeling from "Look, I made this cool thing!" to "I'm getting better at writing." Facilitating concrete comparisons of a student's current achievement to their past difficulties gives kids motivation that no teacher-constructed consequence, positive or negative, can match. These light-bulb-about-the-light-bulb moments also provide great reference points for continued motivation. For example, when a student starts to give up on a challenging task, her teacher, peers, and eventually even she herself can remind her of a specific time in the past when she persevered and achieved.
We teachers and schools often go to so much trouble to construct elaborate incentive and investment systems. But in the end, there seems to be no substitute for the real-world feeling of getting better at a skill you deeply value.