Add the code for Page-level ads to your page

January 2016 Topic: Motivation

Why aren’t students motivated to learn?  Little has vexed me more than this particular question over the course of my career. And while I have certainly sought the answers during my first two decades in the classroom, the answers elude me, and I remain certain of only one thing: for the most part, kids have little motivation to engage–truly engage–in what we call learning.  This month we will explore and seek to better understand what truly motivates students to learn, hopefully turning understanding into action by doing differently in the classroom.

Is it grades? For a time, naively and stubbornly, I clung to the notion that grades motivated students to engage in learning. And so, for years, I attempted to make kids learn, using grades as both punishment and reward.  I wasted many a year here.  

Is it me?  Maybe if I am engaging, the kids will be more engaged.  And though there is some truth found in this approach, I have often wondered if the kids were really more engaged or just more entertained.  Good teachers have to be engaging, but good teachers, I believe, also know that being engaging alone is not enough to truly engage all the kids in learning.  At least, that has been my experience.  Of course, it may be  that I’m not as engaging as I think.

Is it parents? I became a more empathetic teacher when I became a parent. As a young, yet-to-have-any children-of-my-own teacher, I imagined that parents getting their children to be more committed to education simply required their telling them to do it.  Just do it, right?  As if.  Now, with children of my own, I know and fight the nightly battles to get my children to do their homework, listening to a litany of reasons for why they don’t want to do it, ranging from boredom to frustration.  And sometimes–hear comes the confession of the public-school teacher who’s also a parent, I give in.  I am human,  I am a parent.  I get it.  And while I know that parents play a very vital role in their children’s education, the answer cannot simply lie in parents’ parenting.  There has to be a better answer.

Is it the future? The future can be scary.  And it seems we teachers count on and exploit that to motivate our students. “You have to pass the state assessment…, If you fail this class…, If you want to go to college…, If you want to get a good job…, It will hurt your GPA…, This will be on the final…, When you get into the real world….”  Admittedly, sadly, I believe all of these scare tactics have crossed my lips over the years, especially early on, but now, thankfully, I know better, for these rarely inspire commitment and more often coerce compliance, which does not elicit engagement.

Is it students themselves?  The longer I’m at it, and the more I learn, I have become increasingly suspicious that the truth of the matter lies somewhere within this realm.  Yes, to varying degrees, the above considerations matter and play a role in motivating some students, but not all.  And while we will continue to use them, despite their limited success, I wonder if we shouldn’t instead focus our energy here.  That said, I am not suggesting that we simply dump it on the kids. No, to be sure, but I am suggesting that maybe we need to work harder to create learning opportunities that transcend traditional approaches that emphasize extrinsic factors and compliance,  and focus instead on approaches that trigger intrinsic factors and commitment.

In the end there are no simple answers, and as with most things, the truth is probably closer to the middle than the ends, but without answers, we will never arrive at a truth.  So, over the next month, let’s  seek some solutions, some answers to the question: What will it take to truly motivate students to learn?

Teachers, please join this month’s Teacher Talk conversation post ( by discussing the question: What works and does not work for motivating students to learn in your classroom?

Students–both past and present, please join this month’s Student Say conversation post ( by discussing the question: What really motivates you to learn?

Parents, please join this month’s Parent Perspective conversation post ( ) by discussing the question: From home, what works and does not work for motivating your children to learn?

Public, please join this month’s Public Platform conversation post ( by discussing the question: Now that you are on the outside looking in, how did your motivation impact your own education and what implications has that had in your life after school?

All, please join the conversation–any part of the conversation, for your words matter.



6 Replies to “January 2016 Topic: Motivation”

  • Why can students quote line-for-line from their favorite movies and TV shows, but forget everything they learn in class? Cognitive scientists have given us a precious gift, views into how the mind works, how the brain learns. We would be remiss not to learn what these scientists have to share with us.
    Brain Rules by John Medina
    The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
    The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg
    Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham
    Through these great books by these talented scientist-authors, you can learn, as I have, how to help students pay attention to the “right” things during class. In Why Don’t Students Like School?, Chapter 3, Wilingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought. To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember.” This simple, yet incredibly complex idea shifted my way of determining what kinds of assignments my students were assigned.

    • Hi, Nicole. Thank you for joining the conversation. I can’t wait to read Why Students Don’t Like School. Thank you for sending it my way. Your words matter. Thank you.

  • It is not so simple to identify a single element that increases the motivation of students in our classroom. “It takes a village” to motivate all the young people in our communities. Should students experience fear, stress, encouragement, rewards, consequences (both positive and negative) as part of their education and their motivation to be educated? Yes, absolutely, this is where most of their education takes place. Just like the workplace, all of these elements play a role. Should parents, teachers, the students themselves, friends, relatives, employers, and members of the community (you forgot this very important one) all participate in motivating students to be “well rounded” and educated. Yes, absolutely, all of these people play a key role together to motivate students. Lacking motivation in school is like a person who is depressed, the answer to issue can be found by looking for and taking advantage of the opportunities in their community to serve and help others. Too often, people who focus on themselves more than those around them lack motivation. As a teacher, I have never lacked motivation because the students I serve on a daily basis provide all the motivation I need.

    • Hi, Rich. Thank you for joining the conversation. Indeed, there are no simple answers. Yes, I did not add community in my reflections on what motivates kids in my classroom, but I did remember to include the community as “public” in the public platform post for the month. For outside the context of my classroom, they are the key players in terms of their perspective on the real-world implications of complying with versus committing to one’s education, the latter being the ideal, which I believe we have yet to accomplish on a grand scale in public education. And that is why I have asked them to join the conversation, for as you reminded me, their words matter. Thank you.

      On another note, I was curious about your final remark regarding how your students provide all the motivation you need and if you could offer some specifics on how they motivate you. I assume that you are suggesting that you are motivated out of your commitment to your students, not out of compliance for the requirements of the job. But I don’t want to make any false assumptions. As well, for the sake of sharing best practices, would you please consider sharing in the teacher-talk post some specific ways you motivate your students in your classroom, so together we can track down some of those elusive answers? And though we may never find the simple answers, I believe we can find the better answers, and your joining the conversation moves us closer to that end. So, again, thank you for joining the conversation. Your words matter. Truly.

      • I teach 5th grade, and would like a shot at answering the clarification that you requested of Rich. There are more motivations taking place here than at other jobs I have had the privilege of working. I have donned many a hairnet and name tag, I have been a member of the clergy, resettled refugees from Somalia, Bosnia, Russia, and Vietnam, worked in the fishing industry in Alaska, worked as a hired hand on numerous farms, driven a van for the newspaper, etc., and there is one commonality that lies at the center of all the jobs having direct interaction on a daily basis with people, and that is motivation. When working with people, interactions go more smoothly the more I am prepared to serve. If I am prepared with my lessons, I feel more at ease and am able to better serve the public, in my case my classroom. Working in the fishing industry in Alaska was physically demanding, but did not require me to be prepared mentally to work with people. I simply had to be breathing, rested, and motivated (by paycheck and wanting my boss to see I was dependable and hard-working), basically my attitude had to be right and my effort had to be at 100 %. Teaching requires those things, absolutely, but if I am not ready to serve the students I work with, then my attitude and effort only get me so far with these little people. They can sense if I am being self-serving (just doing it for the paycheck), or if I am in survival mode (I needed a job I was qualified for on paper, but am not so good with young people). I am motivated each and every day by the plain and simple truth that if I am not prepared through planning/grading, then I will not be prepared to interact positively with and build relationships with the students that I have been entrusted. I would like to continue the conversation, but alas I have used up my planning time for the day. I gladly used this time because it is important for those who aren’t teachers to know that if we teachers aren’t prepared for your son or daughter, then their day as well as ours will be less of an impact then if we are fully planned and prepared. Planning and preparation often equate to motivation for me, in order for serving others to be more like breathing after a walk instead of after a marathon.

  • I often bring up this topic and I’m glad you’ve written about it! Many days I dread coming to school or doing work, and it’s simply because of the lack of motivation. Interesting read Mr. Syrie!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: