Motivation – A Surprising Finding (an extract from Cleverlands) by Lucy Crehan

With so much pressure coming from external sources, such as parents and teachers, one might think that while most Chinese students are motivated to study hard, this is entirely extrinsic motivation, and driven by fear of punishment or promise of reward rather than interest in the task. It would be easy enough to pick out examples of Chinese students being bullied by their parents and hating school – but would this fairly represent the ‘typical’ Chinese experience?

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume so. At the very least, given that British and American parents are more concerned with making learning interesting and fun than their Chinese counterparts, you’d think that their children would be more intrinsically motivated than Chinese children.168 Another reason for thinking so would be that Chinese teachers have been described as more ‘controlling’ than Western ones: putting more pressure on the children, giving them more tests and demanding more conformity.169 According to Ryan and Deci’s well-evidenced finding that autonomy is a key prerequisite for intrinsic motivation, it ought to follow that Chinese children have, on average, very little of it.170

This is not actually the case. Wang and Pomerantz gave Chinese and American adolescents questionnaires that asked them to say how much (from 1–5) they agreed with various statements about their motivations for studying, which corresponded with the different types of motivation identified by Ryan and Deci on their taxonomy: intrinsic motivation (e.g. ‘I do my homework because it’s fun’), identification (‘I work on my classwork because it’s important to me to do so’), introjection (‘I work on my classwork because I’ll be ashamed of myself if it doesn’t get done’) and external motivation (‘I do my homework because I’ll get in trouble if I don’t’). They found that Chinese students actually had a higher index of relative autonomy – i.e. they gave more intrinsic and identified reasons for studying than American students. While this index declined over the course of junior high school (a period where the pressure intensifies in China due to the high school entrance exams) it remained higher than American students of the same age.171

This is surprising – Chinese students are under lots of pressure from parents and teachers, and are taught in a way that doesn’t give students much freedom, and yet they report that they enjoy learning more than Americans do and that they work hard because it is important, rather than because their parents force them to. However, it is consistent with research carried out in the 1990s which found that Chinese children reported liking school more than American children.172 More recent research was carried out by the OECD in 2012 in which 85 per cent of Shanghainese 15-year-olds surveyed agreed with the statement ‘I feel happy at school’ compared to 80 per cent of American 15-year-olds and 83 per cent of British 15-year-olds (not a big lead for the Chinese, but they are not behind on this measure as you might expect).173

How can we make sense of this? One explanation comes from some Chinese researchers. Zhou, Lam and Chan suspect that the answer to this paradox lies in the different ways that students from different cultures interpret the apparently ‘controlling behaviours’ of their teachers (and I would argue this extends to parents and grandparents too).174 Zhou and colleagues tested their hunch by giving Chinese and American fifth graders various scenarios involving teachers, such as a teacher keeping a child behind in class to finish some homework they hadn’t handed in, and asked the children to say how they would feel if their teachers did the same to them (choosing from 12 emotions). They found that American students were more likely to interpret the teachers’ actions as being controlling, and to say it made them feel sad or mad, whereas the Chinese students interpreted exactly the same scenarios more positively, indicating that they felt looked after or cared for. In addition, they found that for students from both countries, feeling controlled led to less motivation in that teacher’s class, whereas feeling cared for led to more motivation, and that students were less likely to perceive an action as being controlling if they had a good relationship with that teacher.

If you’ve been brought up in a Confucian culture, where fulfilling your role within the family is very important, and where parents impress the value of learning upon you from a young age, you are likely to have internalised these values and goals. When an adult then acts in a way that will benefit your learning, you are less likely to perceive that behaviour as being controlling, and more likely to see it as evidence of your teacher or parent’s concern for you and your future; especially where that relationship is a loving one. In other words, Chinese students have higher levels of autonomous motivation because they have internalised the cultural and familial goals, and made them their own. They are less externally motivated despite the pressure from parents and teachers because the pressure is to pursue goals that they themselves believe in.


Cleverlands is due for publication on December 1st and can be ordered by following the link below.

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