How to motivate young learners?


Rosie Byrnes


How can we help guide our students to be curious, independently motivated learners?

In my second grade classroom, math class is the most dreaded hour of the day for many of my students (and, I’ll admit, sometimes for me… Math is not my greatest strength). The start of math class is met with groans, excuses, sudden bathroom emergencies, and general disgruntlement. They just. Don’t. Wanna.

As the teacher, it’s my job to get students to be, if not totally excited about math, at least willing to try it out. A nearly impossible task, if you were to ask me on any given afternoon. How can I get a class of children to learn a skill that they actively reject?

What motivates people to learn?

In life, all actions are guided by two forces: what we need, and what we want. Motivation is the why behind everything we do. If people feel little to no motivation to complete a task—-that is, if they don’t feel a need or a desire to complete it—-it is much less likely that the task will be done well, or even done at all.

For adults, a majority of our learning is for personal desire. We read books that are interesting, we keep up-to-date with relevant news, and we pursue careers or education in areas that (hopefully) mean something to us. Unfortunately, school does not reflect the world in this way; kids learn what they learn because they are told by their teachers that they must.

This creates one of the most difficult challenges that educators face on a daily basis: getting kids to learn topics they don’t care about. Often this means teaching them how to comply to our demands, rather than teaching them to be independent learners.

As human beings, all of us—kids and adults alike—are adept at resisting the tasks we don’t want to do. For many students, the majority of the day is spent in this state of resistance. It’s unproductive, and it can be exhausting for both student and teacher.

So what can we do?

Since the dawn of education, teachers have invented ways to manage these challenges in our classrooms. And though we’ve gotten more creative with our tactics, most solutions have always been based around extrinsic motivation—or the willingness to complete a task based on external rewards or punishments.

In the days of one-room schoolhouses and corporal punishment, the philosophy was, “You’d better learn it, or else.” The threat of or else was scary enough to be effective; fear is one of the strongest extrinsic motivators around. But it’s a bit archaic for our modern teaching philosophies.

Thankfully, our role as teachers has evolved from harsh dictators to passionate leaders. Recognizing and celebrating our students as individuals informs the way we teach, and our world has been rewarded with more creative risk-takers as a result.

And yet, the majority of educators still rely on extrinsic motivation to get our kids to learn.

Fear tactics, or extrinsic punishments, are still rampant in school culture, though now they take the form of threatening a lost recess or a trip to the principal’s office. Stickers, class money, treasure boxes, and even grades are also tactics of extrinsic motivation—-rather than fear, these extrinsic rewards use the power of hope, and are still quite popular. Why? Because they are effective… to a point.

Motivation based on external factors works well for short-term results; the immediate promise of a reward or punishment can motivate learners to get things done quickly. One math class, I offered a piece of candy to the first student to finish the assignment. I had the whole stack of papers on my desk within five minutes. Hooray! I’d found the solution at last, and it was so simple! (Spoiler alert: That was a terrible solution.)

The promise of an extrinsic reward did work to motivate my students, and they completed their work quickly. But as you probably guessed, those worksheets on my desk were sloppy, half-finished, and demonstrated no learning. As far as supporting a group of learners who could make positive contributions to society, well… I was out of candy, and my kids still didn’t understand place value.

Rather than bribing my students with rewards to learn the material, I should have appealed to their intrinsic motivation, or the internal desires that facilitate action.

Intrinsically motivated learners tend to outperform their unmotivated or extrinsically motivated peers, and they’re more likely to increase in achievement over time rather than giving up or falling short of expectations.

In other words, the most effective learning occurs when kids actually want to learn. This isn’t surprising, considering it’s how adults function! People are generally motivated by what interests them, makes them happy, or brings them fulfillment. These are all intrinsic motivators, and they are highly effective facilitators for any action.

Extrinsic motivators:

  • Stickers
  • Prizes
  • Money/Tokens
  • Praise
  • Punishment

Intrinsic motivators:

  • Fun
  • Personal
  • Interest
  • Curiosity
  • Relevance
  • Pride

I have one student who adores math. She spent her summer at a mathematics camp, and probably has a few things to teach me about place value. While the rest of the class mixed up their tens and ones, this student was experimenting with what happens if you combine the thousands-place with the hundred-thousands. And she never asked for candy!

Many of us don’t have students who are this intrinsically motivated. We rely on extrinsic motivation simply because it’s the one we can control (as much as I’d love to, I can’t force all my students to love math). But as our role shifts from authoritarian ruler to helpful guide, it becomes our job to help students find this intrinsic motivation within themselves.