The Art of Motivation

Teacher motivates students

Teacher motivates studentsWhat motivates kids? Boy, if only I knew! How many parent meetings began- and ended – with exasperated parents exclaiming, “She’s so smart, but she’s just not motivated”. This cry is at times a request for help and at times a criticism of the teacher. Either way, the ball falls into the educators lap and most are left clutching at straws. How indeed do we motivate students?


I guess one could argue that this is not the educator’s problem. After all, just as we expect students to come prepared with the right writing materials and with the correct books, we can expect them to come with the correct attitudes about learning as well. “Motivation should be a given, a prerequisite for acceptance into my classroom”, I once heard a teacher claim, “just like I don’t pack their lunch, I shouldn’t have to pique their interest”. Lack of motivation becomes a parenting issue, or/and a personality disorder. Maybe they have some medication for this as well!


However, anyone who has spent any time in education will realize that the above approach is a quick path towards some serious frustration. The simple truth is that any teacher claiming the above would be tacitly admitting that he or she has no idea how to go about motivating the students. And if you, the trained educator, cannot light a fire under your pupils, how in the world do you think parents will be successful where you have failed? What are the parents going to do? Bribe their kids? Punish their kids? We all know how long-lasting those solutions are. Place the blame wherever you please, but get used to the idea that it’s your issue. As I often tell students: Just because it’s not your fault, doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.


I would even go so far as to claim that, given today’s technological realities and the dawning of the Age of Information, motivating students to learn may not only be one of a teachers tasks, but might actually be the most important job a teacher does. Creating an inquisitive, driven, seeker of knowledge may very well be the most crucial of skills, the true determinant of future success.

The responsibility of the parents is simply to prepare their children to be motivated. Parents must see to the pre-educational needs (sleep, nutrition, school supplies, support, etc.) that will create a fertile personal environment that will allow the teacher’s motivational techniques to take root and flourish. But, the teacher must be the motivating force.


So, we return to our original question; how do we motivate students? Well, I don’t purport to have all the answers, but I think I might have some insights. The insights come from a small stack of letters a teacher recently showed me, which were written to him by a group of students he had just finished teaching. The teacher was incredibly successful in motivating the students and he showed me the letters as a response to the question I posed to him: how did you do it?


Of the 25 notes, the words passion, knowledge, love and inspiration appeared in almost every single letter. Interestingly, three out of the four words described how the teacher taught, not what the teacher taught. I guess at the end of the day, students are more motivated, or at least equally motivated, by your spirit than by your words. Hardly surprising, surprisingly rare.

2 Responses to The Art of Motivation

  1. Don Berg says:

    Actually, there is a whole field of science that has a pretty good answer to the question of what motivates kids and their teachers. But, applying the insights of that science would require substantial changes in how schools are organized because it turns out that four of the seven the barriers to motivation that research has identified are not even in the classroom.

    The science is psychology and the particular field within psychology is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). I did research on patterns of motivation in two alternative schools for my psychology degree using SDT. In order to enable students to access their motivations teachers need to support the students psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Of the three schools tend to be most unsupportive of autonomy by being too controlling. To help differentiate between them here is a resource:
    That page also identifies the seven barriers to autonomy supportive teaching.

    So you are right about the fact that how the teacher teaches is a critically important factor. There is great art in applying the science. But, what is required can be specified much more clearly than you know. All the terms from the student’s letters involve some combination of the basic needs and providing support for meeting them. There is still tremendous skill required to create a classroom situation in which the basic needs of students can be met in the same way that knowing the chemistry of oil paints does not remove the necessity of great artistic skill when applying it to canvas.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Thank you for your comments. The thrust of my post was to argue that motivating students is actually one of the most important of a teacher’s roles, and that the way in which they teach impacts greatly on student motivation to learn. This realization is the first step, making sure the teacher understands that the brush is in their hands. I loved your chart and would encourage all teachers to pay close attention to the control tendencies which truly inhibit motivation.

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