In-Class Motivation – Part 3: From EXTRINSIC to INTRINSIC

This is the final portion of a 3-part blog post looking-into how teachers generate in-class motivation from their pupils.

During the first two posts I’ve explored how we confuse ourselves about the purpose and nature of ‘engagement’ in lessons, and I’ve also drilled-into the perils of overstimulation as we seek to push the engagement button.

In this post I’m going to probe the nature of human motivation itself, and give an overview of things we can tap-into to lead a general move away from external carrots and sticks towards something far more sustainable, satisfying and ‘healthy’.

Essentially, no matter how we try to dress things up or strip them down, humans are complex and messy, having simultaneous needs and impulses operating at different levels in our brain. You can’t escape from the fact that we have base animal instincts, needs and wants. You can’t escape from the fact that we also experience various higher-order cognitive and ‘spiritual’ yearnings and motivations.

You also can’t escape from the fact that in school we have to prepare children for a world which holds potentially harsh consequences if we don’t do what is required of us, but which also holds unknowable potential for satisfaction and fulfilment if we freely commit to opportunities which pass our way.

Nothing is ever as clear-cut in humans as the Operant Conditioning of B.F. Skinner, or the famous Hierarchy of Needs of Abraham Maslow would lead us to believe. As is so often the case when looking for norms in psychological functioning, the reality with motivation is that everyone is like everybody else, somebody else and nobody else, and you will never be able to predict for sure quite what will be the best thing to move someone in any one moment.

Research has, however, revealed to us some intriguing general patterns with regards to human functioning:

  1. Yes, up to a point, humans will try harder if threatened with a bigger stick, or a bigger carrot – in other words greater EXTRINSIC forms of motivation – but…
    • Remove the carrot or stick and we are likely to stop.
    • For problem solving tasks requiring more fluid or creative thinking, research suggests that the quality of what they produce is likely to DECREASE if the incentives get too big.
  2.  Humans are at their happiest and most distinctively productive when acting in accordance with things that they find INTRINSICALLY motivating- in other words, things they feel drawn to do.

A key goal for teachers then is to wean children off either the need for immediate rewards, or the need to be prodded with threats of immediate punishment, and gift them two services: Firstly, we should help them to develop the ability to delay gratification – pushing back their need for extrinsic reward –  as well as helping them to look further into the future in order to better avoid distant difficulties.

Secondly though, we should help them to find the intrinsic satisfaction which is to be had at the core of myriad intellectual pursuits – including learning in general – and with as little ‘sugar-coating’ with irrelevant fun diversions as possible. It is the opening-up of this terrain of self-motivated, addictive learning that I want to really explore.

Extinsic to Intrinsic

Of course, some educators would have it that the key to harnessing intrinsic motivation in children is for us to let them themselves decide where the learning should go, and harness our teaching to their existing strengths and interests.

The greatest value in human teachers however, is to be able to lead children into territory which they wouldn’t likely wander on their own accord, and prepare the ground and the learners such that they can make this new world their own. Let’s be frank, is there a greater single function which schools should be providing?

So how do we get intrinsic motivation to kick-in when we’re taking children into places that have been decided by us rather than by them?

During the rest of this post I’m going to briefly outline several theoretical areas offering insights which we can use when trying to make this transition. Then, over upcoming weeks, I’m going to dive down into one aspect at a time, unpicking the key aspects of it and looking at what this might actually look like in the classroom. Remember – there will be no one silver bullet here – but, between different factors, you might nevertheless be able to derive golden glows which help to transform your practice.


Getting INTO learning:

1) Piquing natural curiosity through INFORMATION GAPS

Information gaps

Nobody is curious about everything, and nobody is curious about nothing. The Information Gap Theory of George Loewenstein usefully sees curiosity as a cognitive state which arises when we recognise a gap in the knowledge which we have. It is only once we recognise this gap that we start to feel curious, and the presentation of material to help create such gaps is an area which teachers can explore in multiple ways. QI, for example, heavily relies on this approach when posing questions, and so can we.

2) Generating commitment through identifying RELEVANCE


It seems obvious that if we can persuade people why something might be relevant to their personal situations, or for their future, then they are more likely to take a committed interest in it. This is of course hard to do directly for every learning objective which we might have (and certainly could become quite time-consuming), but relevance can simply relate to how one aspect which we are looking at fits together meaningfully to another area which we have already established the relevance of.

3) Establishing interpersonal RELATEDNESS

I have warned here of the dangers and futility of trying to go overboard with personalisation, and argued here that as much as possible we should aim to “keep the pack together” – saving differentiation for differences that make a difference.

It is a cornerstone of Self-Determination Theory that a desire for ‘relatedness’ is a key intrinsic motivator. On so many occasions, in so many ways, we wish to link-up in joint enterprise with others.


4) A second key element of SDT is our yearning for AUTONOMY.

Yes, we don’t always want to be the ones having to make decisions, the outcomes of which we then carry responsibility for, but there is a significant part of us which does crave such opportunities.  Allowing children choices in what they do or how they do things doesn’t require huge concessions, or the relinquishing of all control and direction in order for it to be motivating however…

5) …And our desire for autonomy will ally closely with our need for COMPETENCE

We generally don’t feel comfortable not being able to do things which appear necessary for achieving our goals, and over time we might also feel the additional yearning for MASTERY of an area – an asymptote which can fuel our motivation late into our life.

Moving beyond Self-Determination Theory, the motivational drives associated with AUTONOMY and MASTERY, as well as the search for PURPOSE are compellingly brought into focus by Dan Pink in his book Drive (and in his Ted Talk).

Getting TRAPPED in learning:

Whilst the above factors and needs will help get us into a learning situation, and may often keep us coming back time and again, most teachers will recognise times when they did a great job of getting children’s attention and commitment to something, only for the follow-up – the actual core of the learning – to lose their attention, or not pay-back the interest which they had initially invested in it.

Much has been spoken in recent years about the need for CHALLENGE and it is true that we all yearn for something that puts us to the test somewhat. We nevertheless also prefer challenges which we can overcome, and are likely to be put-off by a never-ending stream of things we can’t achieve or master.

6) Becoming addictively stuck ‘in the zone‘ with FLOW

Screen-Shot-2017-10-24-at-17.47.09@TeacherToolkit has recently opened-up further discussion on Flow 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s FLOW theory explores how we can become happily – indeed addictively – hooked in an activity if the level of challenge and the level of our capability are well matched, and the circumstances don’t distract us. We’ve all experienced being ‘in the zone’ in this way, and children experience it multiple times a day in the playground or gaming on some digital device. They’d just call this ‘fun’, but flow is one of the key things can make games seem ‘fun’ in the first place. Ally this with a moderate degree of autonomy as well, and you have a potent mixture…

7)  The Progress Principle and the power of small wins.

We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.””

Although Jonathan Haidt was responsible for the above quote, The Progress Principle as a theoretical work originated with Theresa Amabile – based on the analysis of exactly what keeps people motivated at work. It fundamentally teaches us two key things:

  • That our experience of small steps towards a goal affects our enthusiasm on a day to day basis – whether or not we have achieved the overall objective.
  • That small losses, set-backs, irritations and upsets have roughly three times the emotional power of small gains and victories.

When trying to encourage children to enjoy wrestling through ‘the learning pit‘, or hoping that they will fully recognise the value of a growth mindset for themselves, this is worth exploring further.

8) The Contagion of Vital Essence

I’ve alluded to this previously here, and most recently here, but this last section is a theoretical area I’m personally wishing to explore, based on practical observation. Namely, that every aspect of life – every aspect of everything in fact – has somebody who finds it fascinating. There is no such thing as something which is inherently boring, nor inherently exciting.

BBC - What I Learned...If you do ‘boring’ things, does that make you a ‘boring’ person?

My proposal is that everything that we try to teach to children is found by some people – somewhere – to be obsessively exciting – or at least compulsively absorbing. Why is that? What is it that can be so compelling about just about anything when looked-at in just the right way, from just the right perspective?

It could well be that it’s a whole range of things alluded to above combined together – the right information gaps, personal relevance, the drive for mastery etc. but I have a suspicion that – once we’ve learned to see something in a certain way, humans can interpersonally transmit what’s vital about that thing through their personal example, explication and enthusiasm, and the interest – the bug – can catch. The task for teachers then would be to get inside the core areas that they are responsible for teaching, and – whether or not they’re already enthusiasts – at least find what the essence of it is that can give it such vitality in the eyes of the devoted.

Originally, I’d intended to spend further posts exploring in more depth the theories behind each one of these ways into intrinsically motivated behaviour, and looking in each case at how we can make fruitful use of them in the classroom. This may yet occur down the line, but for now, I’m going to leave this topic here! 

2 thoughts on “In-Class Motivation – Part 3: From EXTRINSIC to INTRINSIC

  1. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 2: The T of OVERSTIMULATION | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED | Stepping Back a Little

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