Control Theory is the theory of motivation proposed by William Glasser and it contends that behavior is never caused by a response to an outside stimulus. Instead, the control theory states that behavior is inspired by what a person wants most at any given time: survival, love, power, freedom, or any other basic human need.
Responding to complaints that today’s students are “unmotivated,” Glasser attests that all living creatures “control” their behavior to maximize their need satisfaction. According to Glasser, if students are not motivated to do their schoolwork, it’s because they view schoolwork as irrelevant to their basic human needs.
Boss teachers use rewards and punishment to coerce students to comply with rules and complete required assignments. Glasser calls this “leaning on your shovel” work. He shows how high percentages of students recognize that the work they do–even when their teachers praise them–is such low-level work.
Lead teachers, on the other hand, avoid coercion completely. Instead, they make the intrinsic rewards of doing the work clear to their students, correlating any proposed assignments to the students’ basic needs. Plus, they only use grades as temporary indicators of what has and hasn’t been learned, rather than a reward. Lead teachers will “fight to protect” highly engaged, deeply motivated students who are doing quality work from having to fulfill meaningless requirements.
How Control Theory Impacts Learning
Curriculum–Teachers must negotiate both content and method with students. Students’ basic needs literally help shape how and what they are taught.
Instruction–Teachers rely on cooperative, active learning techniques that enhance the power of the learners. Lead teachers make sure that all assignments meet some degree of their students’ need satisfaction. This secures student loyalty, which carries the class through whatever relatively meaningless tasks might be necessary to satisfy official requirements.
Assessment–Instructors only give “good grades”–those that certify quality work–to satisfy students’ need for power. Courses for which a student doesn’t earn a “good grade” are not recorded on that student’s transcript. Teachers grade students using an absolute standard, rather than a relative “curve.”
William Glasser, The Quality School, Harper & Row, 1990.