For most educators, motivation is central to understanding and improving their students' classroom learning. While there is disagreement over its exact nature, most theories describe motivation as an individual phenomenon. Study of motivation has increasingly concerned the contexts in which motivated activity occurs. Of particular concern are specific social aspects of contexts (e.g. peers and classmates) and broader cultural aspects (e.g., societal values, cultural norms). Motivation theories that focus strongly on context are often described as sociocultural theories of motivation. This entry considers sociocultur-ally oriented theories of motivation and, more broadly, the role of context in motivation theories. It contrasts sociocultural theories with more conventional theories, considers the distinctions between different sociocultural theories of motivation, and considers the practical implications of such theories of motivating classroom learning.


Most of the well-known individually oriented theories of motivation focus on either the behavior or the cognition of individuals. Following from the ideas of the behavio-rist B.F. Skinner (1904–1990), theories that focus on behavior generally do not recognize motivation as something different from learning. Behavioral theories generally describe both motivation and learning in terms of how behavior is or is not reinforced by the environment. Because of this, behavioral theories describe contexts in terms of the patterns and relationships in the environment. Behavioral motivation theories argue that teachers should structure classroom contexts so that learning can proceed in a very systematic fashion, and that students are appropriately rewarded for mastering very specific learning objectives.

The cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget (1896–1980) and the emergence of cognitive psychology in the 1970s led to very different theories of motivation. While still focusing on individuals, these theories made a clear distinction between learning and motivation. Well-known types of cognitive theories of motivation include social cognitive theories (e.g., self-efficacy and self-regulation) and intrinsic motivation theories (e.g., self-determination, expectancy theory, and personal interest). Historically, cognitive theories of motivation treated the sociocultural context as one of many factors that influence the motivation of individuals. Concern over the relevance of these theories by leading theorists such as Weiner (1990) led to increased concern with classroom and cultural contexts, particularly among motivation researchers who were concerned with education. This led to increased attention to the ways that classroom contexts, ethnicity, and culture influenced goals (e.g., Maehr & Pintrich, 1995), efficacy (Bandura, 2000), and interests (Hidi & Anderson, 1992). The implication of this trend for teachers was that their students' motivation was much more influenced by the classroom context and by the broader sociocultural context than had previously been assumed. In particular, this trend led away from explanations of motivation that focused on the individuals' genetic inheritance.


Increased concern with sociocultural contexts in motivation and education more broadly reflects the influence of the Soviet theorist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). This influence began after Vygotsky's earlier works were translated into English (e.g., 1978). Vygotsky used the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) to understand how history and society impact the way that humans develop and learn. This led him to argue that knowledge originates in the social context. For some motivation theorists, Vygotsky's theories, when compared to theories that focused on individuals, provided a more useful explanation of the way that factors such as poverty and racism interfere with motivation for classroom learning. For example, Sivan (1986) proposed that the individual goals and values that motivate learning originate in the sociohistoric context, just as Vygotsky argued that language originated in the sociohistoric context. The practical implication of these theories is that explanations for differences in motivation should begin with the classroom, home, and sociocultural context, rather than the individual.

One well-known Vygotskian strand of motivational research involved studies of adaptive learning (e.g., McCaslin & Murdock, 1991) and co-regulated learning (McCaslin & Good, 1996). McCaslin and colleagues studied social and instructional environments found in the home and in the classroom. These studies provided detailed accounts of the way that students' regulation of their own thinking processes originated in the negotiation of goals and norms among students, teacher, and families. These studies were important because they identified the source of motivation as the relationships that students developed. This included relationships with school activities and relationships with the many other participants in school learning. Therefore, motivating classroom learners meant helping them coordinate the goals implied by a range of different relationships, and recognizing that some of the goals will conflict with other goals. This implies that before searching for strategies to motivate individual learners, teachers need to help students learn to negotiate worthwhile goals for themselves and their classmates. In doing so, teachers need to acknowledging the influence of other goals which might interfere with classroom learning, but which have real value for students.

McCaslin's studies helped pave the way for other studies that focused on the relationships that students had with other participants in the classroom and cultural contexts, including Järvelä and Salovaara (2004), Nolen (2007), Turner and Meyer (2000), and Yowell and Smy-lie (1999). By the start of the 21st century, “motivation in context” had emerged as an important theme among motivation researchers. This is particularly apparent in the treatment of motivation in educational psychology textbooks. While continuing to give ample treatment to motivational strategies that focus on individual learners, many also point out that teachers need to help the classroom community negotiate worthwhile goals, acknowledging that the students themselves help create and change these very goals.


The most distinctively sociocultural theories of motivation are rooted in the “situative” theories of cognition that began taking shape in the 1990s. Like Vygotskian theories, situative theories assume that knowledge originates in social interaction and in cultural activity. However, situative theories assume that the knowledge primarily resides in these contexts as well. Situativity theorists argue that the abstract concepts that make up knowledge in cognitive theories and the specific associations that make up knowledge in the behavioral theories are “secondary” ways of describing knowledge. From this perspective, strictly behavioral or strictly cognitive explanations of individual activity reflect the beliefs of particular researchers and the methods they use (Greeno & the MMAP, 1998). Situativity theorists believe that knowledge is “distributed” across tools, technologies, and social rituals that human cultures construct to let them work together. This means that knowledge and meaning are primarily rooted in the actual collective experiences people have in the world. According to Gee (2004), the abstract generalizations that are taken for granted in modern cognitive perspectives come at the end of a long process of socially situated activity—if they come at all. Because of this, situative theorists believe that students' learning is strongly attached to their participation in the construction of situated knowledge in socially meaningful activity.

Situative considerations of motivation for classroom learning first ask whether a particular learning context affords collective engagement in situated learning. In other words, are students and teachers negotiating a shared understanding of the concepts, terms, and rituals of the domain? This leads to a very different approach to motivation than prior approaches that focused on the activity of individuals. In one initial consideration, Hickey (1997) examined the motivational implications of situative instructional approaches that achieved prominence in the 1990s. This included the cognitive apprenticeship model defined by Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989). That paper suggested that the negative motivational consequences of competition might be more the result of lack of opportunity to engage in meaningful shared activity, rather than any fundamental consequence of competition.

Likewise, Hickey explored Bereiter and Scardama-lia's 1989 intentional learning perspective, which argued that learning environments first need to give students opportunities to participate in the construction of new knowledge in shared activity. They suggested that the widely held distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation was too crude to be of much use in developing intentional learning environments. Both of these seminal considerations of situated learning suggested that the motivational strategies from earlier individually oriented theories of motivation might actually interfere with efforts to motivate engagement in situated learning. Given that situative theorists consider all learning to be socially situated, situative perspectives on learning seemed to have profound implications for motivating classroom learning.

One implication of this trend towards situated theories of motivation is that efforts to improve motivation for classroom learning should focus on engagement. This is because focusing on engagement requires being more specific about assumptions about learning. This issue was elaborated in Hickey and McCaslin (2001) who examined the implications of situative theories for motivating engagement in learning. They argued that a situative focus on learning to participate in shared discourse (rather than learning from that participation) meant that teachers should focus their efforts at motivating that participation. Prior theories would focus on motivating students to encourage them to engage in discourse, and search for individual explanations when they failed to do so. Behaviorally oriented theorists would consider how the environment rewarded or punished individuals for participating in that activity. Cognitively oriented theorists would consider how the goals or values of the individuals affected the desirability of that activity.

In contrast, situative theories focus more directly on fostering worthwhile discourse among their students. This discourse occurs as students work together to make meaning of the terms, representations, and ideas that have already been negotiated by the community of experts in the particular academic domain. For example, the prevailing social norms in a math class should motivate students and teachers to encourage one another to use the mathematical term vector rather than the everyday term point during a lesson on geometry. Given the limits of human attention, this shift has major implications of teachers. This is because asking teachers to focus directly on such situated considerations of learning draws limited resources away from focusing on the behavior and/or cognition of each of their students.

Hickey and McCaslin (2001) also described the basic tension between earlier behavioral and cognitive views of motivation. As illustrated by the seemingly intractable debate over extrinsic incentives (e.g., prizes, competition, and grades), they argued that these tensions were a major obstacle to educational reform. Reflecting their very different views of learning, cognitive theorists have long argued that incentives interfere with natural learning processes, while behavioral theorists have long argued that incentive are useful for encouraging learning. Hickey and McCaslin argued that a relatively neutral situative view of motivation might offer a more useful lens for studying and comparing behavioral and cognitive strategies for motivating engagement. From a situative perspective, incentives and competition are not inherently good or bad. Rather, all motivational practices should first be analyzed in terms of their impact on students' success at negotiating meaningfulness of the language and concepts of the particular academic domain. Importantly, a situative theory of motivation assumes that the success of these negotiations is the primary source of individual motivation towards the domain. Therefore it is the collective success of these negotiations that predicts whether or not those individuals will be motivated to engage in the practices of the domain in the future.

The notion of engaged participation, which was introduced by Greeno and colleagues (1998) provides a particularly appealing theoretical basis for a situated theory of motivation. This theory focuses concern with motivation on participation in the rituals and practices of content domains that represent those domains in the activities of classrooms. This viewpoint argues that if the community of learners that makes up the classroom does not value participation in those rituals and practices, it is difficult for a particular individual to participate in them (Hickey, 2003). In contrast to sociocultural views that assume socially constructed goals and values are internalized by individuals, this viewpoint argues that goal and values remain alongside the knowledge practices in the sociocul-tural environment. While this distinction is philosophical rather than scientific, it has an important practical implication: as one's view of knowledge becomes more situated, the assumption that goals and values are internalized becomes less useful for motivating engagement (Hickey & Granade, 2005).

This raises fundamental questions about the scope of research that might inform teachers' efforts to motivate classroom learning. It argues that the wealth of existing sociocultural research on topics like identity (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998) and discourse (Gee & Green, 1998) are directly relevant for understanding motivated classroom learning. A particularly useful aspect of this research is that much of it concerns particular content areas, such as mathematics or science. When motivated classroom learning is viewed as engaged participation, this research becomes directly relevant for motivating that learning. Because this perspective assumes that specific motivational practices will have different consequences in different situations, teachers must be able to continually assess collective participation and adjust their practices accordingly. The current focus on individually oriented models of motivation in teacher education programs may be distracting from (or even undermining) the development of this ability.

One potential advantage of situative models of motivation is that they lend themselves well to the design-based research methods advanced by many situative educational theorists (e.g., Barab & Squire, 2004). These approaches build theory within efforts to reform educational practice. This is very different from the building of theory in highly controlled experiments or surveys (as in traditional studies of motivation) or naturalistic investigations of classroom or cultural activity (as in many of the recent study of motivation in context). Design-based methods are particularly relevant to educators because they highlight the value of theories that are developed in specific contexts for improving learning in those same contexts. Hickey and Schaffer (2006) proposed a model for improving classroom motivation over a series increasingly formal design-based studies. This first study would focus on highly situated analyses of motivation, using discourse analytic methods to increase collective participation; this would be followed by more experimental studies of individual goals and values. A final cycle would use traditional program evaluation methods to look at the motivated behavior of all of the students. While elements of such an approach have been examined in initial studies (Hickey & Zuiker, 2005), the entire model has yet to be fully implemented or validated. The practical implications of such an approach is that if teachers focus their attention on directly enhancing their students' collective participation in domain-specific discourse, they will indirectly enhance the intrinsic motivation (e.g., goals and self-determination) of their individual students while improving the overall behavior (e.g., disciplinary actions and enrollments in advanced courses) over the student body.


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