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Welcome to Motivation Matters


Welcome to Motivation Matters, a new blog sponsored by

The concept of motivation has been a topic that has fascinated me for years, beginning in high school in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was in daily awe of my valedictorian older brother, who spent hours in his bedroom mastering chemistry and physics while I rode the "rising tide of mediocrity" (Nation at Risk lingo) into the TV room or down the street to a friend's house to put off until tomorrow the academic work I really should have done yesterday.

But all that changed about halfway through my checkered college career. Riding the rising tide of mediocrity had become downright depressing. I began spending more time in the library and less in the downtown bars, I found intellectual pursuits more satisfying than ever, and I had the fortunate experience of having some excellent professors who motivated me. But most of all, my attitude adjustment occured because of fear—the fear of limited opportunity.

My fascination with the issue of student motivation is matched by educators' interest in it. (See "Student Motivation: What Works, What Doesn't.") That's why I wanted to start to this blog. Over the years, in my conversations with educators when I was interviewing them for stories or simply just talking informally, the issue of student motivation emerged no matter what we were discussing. Most educators seem frustrated by the pervasive attitude that "just getting by" is good enough, but inspired by those kids who push themselves hard and seem to have a thirst for all things intellectual. Teachers and administrators are searching for ideas and tactics for improving student motivation, and I hope this blog serves as an entertaining and useful tool for them to achieve that goal.

So let's get this blog going with some important questions to ponder: What motivates the students in your schools? Why do students work hard for one teacher, but just skate by with another? What tactics work best to get them fully engaged in their classes? Is it a balancing act between encouraging young people, but also making them feel a little afraid of the consequences if they don't work hard?


It is my belief that the saying"It takes a village (community) to raise a child rings just as true in the area of motivation. It is not just parents and teachers, etc. who play an integral role in motivating youngsters.Politicians,entertainers,spiritual leaders, the media, athletes serve as very powerful role models in either negative or positive ways.We,the adults in our children's world, show them the value of motivation by the way we conduct our own lives, personally and professionally. If we cheat our neighbor and seem to appear to benefit, what message do we set for
children regarding the value of honesty? Highly paid professional athletes who cheat rob our children of positive motivation to succeed with integrity. The community needs to provide more genuine role models who inspire our children to be motivated to give life their best effort.

Teachers are the key: why do kids work hard for one teacher and not the other? One reason is the teacher's enthusiasm for the subject, and their expectations for the kids. Another reason is the teacher getting to know each and every student in the classroom.

I taught Art and Design, mostly in high school, and tried to get to know each student. When I was brought a student who wouldn't learn in other classes, the first thing to do was to learn about the student, then design projects for him/her that would spark their interest.

Teachers also need to have high expectations. As a current Board Member, I get to visit many schools in our system. There are a few teachers who say to parents something like this: anyone can make an A in this course if they turn in the notes and attend class every day. Never mind about the quality of work, never mind about the learning, just turn in the notes and your kids will pass.

This is disgusting, and frightening in my mind, and it's up to the principal and department chair to try to remediate in this kind of situation.

Parents, of course, are vital to the process, but I have seen good teachers overcome the difficulties of single-parent families, foster home situations and inspire kids to go on to college and become worthy citizens.

If parents can help at home, so much the better.

Dear Kevin:

An outside observer noting your brother’s studious behavior and your lackluster passivity might conclude that motivation is a magical, mystical, internal drive or desire that some students possess and some do not. Wrong! Motivation is synonymous with reason—as in having a reason. Motivation is reason; reason is motivation. In fact, I recommend we eliminate use of the word motivation. I got out of bed this morning, not because I was motivated, and not even because, “I’m a good person.” or, “because my parents taught me well.” I had a reason or reasons to get up. Had I not had a reason to get up, I would still be in bed. The concept of motivation had nothing to do with my getting up—nor does it have to do with this response.

The difference between you and your brother probably was that he saw a reason to achieve at a high level and you saw no reason, or perhaps you had more reason to use your time otherwise and avoid the study procedure. The questions that need to be asked and answered are these, “Is there a reason why a kid should do homework? Is there a reason why students should raise their hand or observe class rules? Is there a reason to care about lessons, assignments, or tests?” If so, why can’t students know that? If they saw a reason, they would do it. If they knew what I knew; they would do what I do. Conversely, if they do not do it, it’s because they see no reason to do so. The teacher’s responsibility is to give students reasons, meaningful to them, and to accept their failure to do what they “should have done,” as feedback that they did not have sufficient reason, did not understand the reason, or had a competing, priority reason. The reasons must be internal, they must be meaningful to the student and they must compete with other reasons vying for a student’s time and effort.

Coercion, intimidation or even reward is not appropriate as reasons to learn. Learning in order to be remembered and useful must have its own reasons and must have a relationship to prior learning and knowledge. (That’s why you couldn’t pass all those tests, today, that you once did back in college. You learned them for credit, not for learning.) The real question is this, “Do we want students to do a lesson, or do we want them to learn a lesson. I would assume you had your share of coercion to get motivated.

My old First Sergeant at Fort Carson, explained coercive motivation as an absolute, “I can’t make you do it, but I can make you wish you had.” He was right. Let me add another dimension to the explanation.

Motivation is only half a word

Question: “How do teachers motivate kids?” Answer: “They don’t!” “ They can’t!” If teachers motivate students, it is the teacher’s motivation at work, not the kid’s.” When the teacher quits motivating, or is no longer a factor, kids are no longer motivated to do the teacher's will. Kids are always motivated, every second of their lives. Neither can parents motivate their children, for the same reason. The problem is that children are motivated to do nothing, to sit on their butts, play Game Boy, or to do their thing rather than the teacher’s things.

Motivation is only half a word. I cannot talk about motivation without including the other half. That would be like planning a trip without knowing where you are going. It would make a difference if the trip were to the bathroom, across the state, or across the ocean. It depends on whether I am crossing the ocean to fight a war, live the rest of my life, or visit thirteen countries in three days. You can’t talk about a trip unless you know where you are going; and you can’t talk about motivation unless you deal with the other half of the expression. The other half of the word motivation is, “to what.” Motivation to what? To do something you can’t do? To do something you can do, but you think is stupid? To study for a test that you know already you will fail? To do what thirty others are doing when you know you will come in thirtieth. To get a grade that you don’t care about?

As a teacher I am not in charge of student motivation – I am responsible for the “to what.” When I considered the “to what” half of motivation, I discovered that it is, “Doing it for real (as opposed to phony.)” I find myself motivated to solve my problems, get satisfaction, improve my life, and seek enjoyment. Observing students working hard in school, I see that they practice sports for hours, including doing repetitions, conditioning, and exercises because it is real –worthwhile in and of itself, or it leads to something worthwhile—like getting in the game, or getting a letter, maybe. Students don’t need grades or extrinsic rewards. And, when I see students involved in a science or art project, working together on a skit, or reading to a kindergartner, I see a lot of hard work, time and effort. I also see, satisfaction, accomplishment and honest recognition. If teachers can make their subject real, important and worthwhile students will be motivated to work and learn. Extrinsic motivation in lieu of its being real is not sufficient, nor will any of the learning go into lasting memory.

By the way, on a psychiatrist’s couch or by asking your brother, you could probably figure out what caused study in college to become meaningful in the middle of your quest for a degree or your campus fun and parties.

With joy in sharing, [email protected]

Dear Kevin,
You're right, how to motivate their students is of paramount concern to many teachers. The word motivate means arouse, cause, draw, drive, impel, induce, inspire, inspirit, instigate, lead, move, persuade, prompt, stimulate, stir – all synonyms that describe what teachers strive to do.

Human beings are intrinsically motivated to learn. We are innately curious and like to be stimulated so why does it sometimes seem so difficult to motivate students to learn what we think they need to learn? James Delisle (1994) wrote that the best definition he had heard of “lazy” was “people who are not motivated in ways you want them to be.”

Daniel Goleman’s research into emotional intelligence has shown a strong relationship between young children who are able to postpone gratification and their later success in adult life. This doesn't fit well with a generation of children who have been brought up on a diet of immediate and highly stimulating gratification.

Young people who are unable to set long-term goals are less likely to be motivated to work towards achieving success in school. As observed by the previous writers avoidance of negative outcomes can be as powerful a motivating factor as the pursuit of positive goals although the intrinsic nature of positive goal achievement tends to have a deeper and more long-lasting effect.

Motivation to expend effort reduces significantly when there is no payoff. It is not in human nature to continue to expend effort on a task if there is no perceived purpose or positive outcome. Many students are refusing to work hard for what seems to them too distant a payoff which is why Bill Page's approach of providing learning opportunities linked to real life experiences is so important. Previously unmotivated school students who develop overnight enthusiasm for learning when apprenticed alongside real-life practitioners is just one example of this principle in action.

An unmotivated student might not be interested in the subject or respond well to the learning style or environment. It might also be that he or she is unmotivated due to a multitude of other factors including; tiredness, hunger, biological changes (don’t underestimate the power of those hormones), emotional concerns, social pressures, a shift in perception of ability to achieve, and/or a negative attitude towards school generally.

Responsibility for motivation lies somewhere between resting entirely with the student and entirely with the teacher. The teacher is not in control of all of the influencing factors and can only do his or her bit but that bit is significant and can have far-reaching consequences. While we know that students have lives outside of school that greatly influence how they are within school we also know that they are in our classrooms a significant amount of the time and that what happens there is within our sphere of influence.

A thought-provoking topic. Regards, Anne

Thanks for sharing that Bill. You have captured the essence of what motivates people and that includes students. Only a few students are motivated to work hard because they will get good grades if they do so. But all kids should want to or need to know more about the world that they live in. So often in my science class kids would ask why do we need to learn about this? This being the laws of chemical equilibrium or factors that affect the rate of reaction etc. However, once you engage students in learning about stuff because it will impact on their lives, the task is much easier. The strategy then is to understand where kids are at and what they are interested in and what will impact on their lives - and then to look at the science curriculum (I only suggest science because that is what I teach - it could be other subjects) and provide a real world context for the science. Now that sounds easy but we are dealing with lots of different students and the boys are interested in blowing up things and the girls are interested in how long it takes for the perm at the beauty salon to work so it will not be a one size fits all program of study.

Now if I know this why aren't all my students engaged and motivated to do well? Becuase I have so many things to do as a teacher that I can't take the time to make sure that I do this well every lesson. Usually the term starts well because I have time and energy to do good planning and preparation in the holidays but once the term begins I get busy and tired and so do the kids, so the job becomes harder.

I very much appreciate Bill Page's perspective on motivation. To have a reason makes much better sense than all the supervisors' exhortations to teachers that they select activities to "motivate" the students.

But I want to add that sometimes the reason is simply that "this is necessary." As an adult, my reason or my motivation to get up and go to work is so that I can earn money to pay my bills because I don't want to live in the streets. For children the necessity reason is not always as obvious. The 15-year-old who wants to appear adult by smoking probably cannot imagine that a few cigarettes now will turn into a life-long addiction, even when adults explain it. And school children may not at all be able to conceive of the value of learning information about what the world is. Why study all this boring stuff about geography and history and science and maths? "Because this is the world you live in, and as your teacher it is my responsibility to pass on to you as much information about this world as I can." The goal is not to make an "expert" of each child, but to provide a foundation of knowledge--and work habits--that will serve the adult he or she will become. There are times when no efforts made by teachers can make a subject real in the classroom.

Therefore children need to acquire at an early age a respect for learning and knowing. Tell children, not that nature and hands-on and field trips are better teachers than books, but that nature and hands-on and field trips work with books to help them as they work toward knowledge and understanding. It is from the challenge and the achievement that children can get their sense that learning is important and worthwhile.

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Recent Comments

  • Susan, Retired teacher and student of educational philosophy: I very much appreciate Bill Page's perspective on motivation. To read more
  • Nola Shoring: Thanks for sharing that Bill. You have captured the essence read more
  • Anne: Dear Kevin, You're right, how to motivate their students is read more
  • bill page: Dear Kevin: An outside observer noting your brother’s studious behavior read more
  • Paul Diffley: Teachers are the key: why do kids work hard for read more




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