The study of motivation has given rise to many different theories about how to motivate ourselves and other people. In recent years, a growing number of schools have implemented programmes designed to increase levels of learner motivation, in particular, their capacity for self-motivation.

‘Students require some form of stimulus to activate, provide direction for, and encourage persistence in their study and learning efforts. Motivation is this energy to study, to learn and achieve and to maintain these positive behaviors over time. Motivation is what stimulates students to acquire, transform and use knowledge.’ James Groccia 1992

Motivation might be best described as having the desire and willingness to do something and theories of motivation have often focused on two distinct categories: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is when we attempt to satisfy a desire, expectation, or goal without being influenced to do so by another person, or by an external incentive or reward. We determine our own goals and expectations, not someone else.  Intrinsic motivation is sometimes referred to as self-motivation.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when we are compelled to do something or act a certain way because of external factors. These might include incentives and rewards or even punishments. Someone else usually determines the goals or expectations.

 Although extrinsic motivation has been used in our education system for many years, there is evidence to show that far from encouraging learning, it actually undermines it. Extrinsic motivation identifies goals and offers incentives and rewards for achieving them. Since learners want to get the rewards, they are willing to engage in the learning activities. This usually means, however, that young people learn to see the knowledge the teacher wishes to convey as a way to get the reward, rather than something interesting to pursue for its own sake. They do not view it as something useful in its own right, so they do not question or evaluate what they are learning. Once the prize has been achieved, young people no longer have any motivation to retain what they have learned. Extrinsic motivation therefore, does not promote deeper or meta-level learning.

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Building intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation assumes that we are all born with an innate capacity to learn and that learning is generally a natural and enjoyable activity. Young people are driven by intrinsic factors such as the love of learning and natural curiosity. Intrinsic motivation is powerful because children have had a genuine interest in the goal itself, as distinct from the reward. The knowledge and skills required to achieve the goal are ‘intrinsically’ related to the goal. In pursuing the goal, they learn in a context in which they can later use the knowledge and skills acquired. This is why, for example, people develop a deeper level of skills and knowledge in the pursuit of hobbies.

The challenge for schools, teachers, parents and young people is to tap into, nurture and build upon this intrinsic self-motivation.

 A growing body of evidence suggests that intrinsically motivated learners deploy different learning strategies than those who are subject to extrinsic drivers. One of the is a work by Cyril Houle (1966); Goal-oriented learners – who use learning to accomplish clear objectives such as passing exams and tests. Activity-oriented learners – who use learning as a means of socialising with others and developing relationships. Learning-oriented learners – who seek knowledge for its own sake and for personal growth.

Recognising the various motivational styles of learners can help teachers to identify the approaches to learning and teaching that will satisfy the needs of individuals. Self-study programmes, for example, will be unlikely to motivate ‘activity-oriented’ learners unless the programme contains some element of interaction with others.

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We need to rethink our traditional views of motivation. This means setting aside the assumption that people are primarily motivated by rewards and punishments, or getting good grades and instead assuming that, in the right atmosphere, young people will contribute and make commitments because they want to learn, to do good work for its own sake and be recognized as people.’ Peter Senge, ‘The Fifth Discipline’

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There are profound implications for teachers, schools and the education system as a whole in Peter Senge’s message. The implications go well beyond learning and teaching in the classroom to personal and professional development for teachers and how we lead and manage our schools. This means rethinking our traditional models of motivation so that schools play down the role of rewards, competition and comparing young people, emphasising instead the importance of personal goals and targets and fostering a climate that builds and sustains higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Alan Mclean identifies strategies that will help schools to develop a climate where both teachers and students can become more self-motivated. He calls them the ‘external drivers’ of motivation. They are: Engagement – taking a genuine interest in individuals: valuing, respecting and affirming them as people and having high expectations of what they might achieve. Structure – providing people with a secure environment in which they know where they stand and are clear what is expected of them and what needs to be done. Stimulation – providing interesting, challenging and enjoyable learning activities that arouse their curiosity and make them want to learn. Feedback – talking regularly with people about what they have achieved and making using praise and positive comments where appropriate, but also ensuring that feedback is honest, accurate, and realistic and, where appropriate, critical.

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McLean believes that these four drivers operate across two dimensions: relationships and power. Young people become empowered through stimulation and structure and find affirmation in engagement and feedback.

Conclusively: Motivation comes from the self: it is locked from the inside out. Intrinsic motivation is more effective than systems based on extrinsic rewards and sanctions. Emotions play a major role in both motivation and learning.


‘Six Pillars of Self Esteem’ (Nathaniel Branden, 2004). ‘Wise Up’ (Bloomsbury, 2000). ‘The Motivated Mind, Bantam Press’ (Raj Persaud, 2005). ‘The Brain’s Behind It’ (Alistair Smith, Network Educational Press, 2004). ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (Daniel Goleman, Bantam Press, 1995). ‘Social Intelligence’ (Daniel Goleman, Bantam Press, 2006). ‘The Motivated School’ (Alan McLean, Chapman, 2003). ‘Teaching Through Encouragement’ (Robert Martin, Prentice Hall, 1980)

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