How to motivate students — or anyone else (and just maybe, ourselves!)



Everyone in the education field talks about how important it is for teachers to motivate students. After 22.5 years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that no one can motivate another person: true motivation comes only from within.

That being said, you can entice people into doing something. You can make an activity fun or engaging enough that students (and adults alike) will play along if they have nothing better to do — or if this activity supports one of their own goals. So often times, as educators, we put on a glorious dog and pony show to dazzle and captivate our students into paying attention and playing along. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we all know there are going to be a few students who just won’t play along.

So how do we motivate those cherubs who aren’t interested in reading Shakespeare despite how well we make the case for its importance — or even how amazing we make it sound with our pre-reading anticipatory activities?

Turns out, we don’t.


According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, true motivation happens when three elements are present:

1. Autonomy

We humans are wired for autonomy, or self-direction. Young children are naturally curious. They seek knowledge and experiences out all on their own. When we get to choose what to explore, the motivation is already there and no one has to do a tap dance to get our attention focused on it. This can be applied in the classroom by giving kids more say in what they will learn and how. Offering choices and self-selected readings, projects, and research topics gives them a sense of autonomy.

2. Mastery

We also like to improve. Pink advocates giving people “Goldilocks” tasks — ones that aren’t too hard or too easy — so they have the opportunity to learn and grow. This reminds me of how in reading instruction, the texts that give students the greatest opportunity to grow as readers are at their instructional level. Independent level texts, those that they can read easily without any help, are great but don’t facilitate improvement. Frustration level texts are just that: frustrating. Growth doesn’t occur when people give up. Instructional level texts, ones that require some scaffolding or support, allow students to stretch to meet the challenge.

3. Purpose

When we have a sense of purpose, we can push ourselves beyond our limits. Pink says that when our sense of purpose is linked to a cause that is larger than ourselves, this is where some of the strongest motivation comes from. Can you instill a sense of purpose in someone else? Maybe not, but you can help others see how they can become connected to a larger cause. You can illuminate the need that exists and, if it is something the person cares about, then their own drive will take over and carry them forward.


If you’ve never read Drive, you should: it’s a must-read for teachers, parents, or anyone who wants to learn what motivates people (even coworkers and spouses!).

Why is this important? Because much of what they taught us in college about motivating young people was just plain wrong. All it took, according to what I learned in my own teacher training years ago, was that your lessons and activities must be seen as relevant. They must relate to students personally and they must be engaging, fun, and rewarding. While I do believe you want your lessons to be relevant, relatable, engaging, and fun, and rewarding, I think we have to do a better job of helping students find out what intrigues them and makes them excited about learning. I was always taught that kids should be given choices, but I don’t think I’m very good at giving them true autonomy.

Interestingly enough, money isn’t even a great motivating factor. (There goes the good ‘ole carrot and stick idea.) Pink discusses how research has found that although financial incentives will boost productivity in the short-term, intrinsic motivation carries us the greatest distance toward our goals.

God gave each of us unique gifts, and if students aren’t given opportunities to explore their aptitudes and talents (because we educators are so busy cramming them with mandated curricula), how will they discover those talents, let alone nurture them?

Do I have all of the answers for how we can instill more autonomy, mastery, and purpose into today’s classrooms? Um, no. In fact, I don’t even have a fraction of the answers. But I do think it’s worth taking the time to investigate and to strive for. What do you think?

How we can help our kids find out what DRIVES them?

Seriously, that’s a question for you. Have any of you tried things in class (or with your own children at home, or even with coworkers, etc.) that facilitate intrinsic motivation? If so, share away!

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