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Virginia Journal of Education

Inspiring Motivation from Within

Inside every student is a motivated young person trying to get out.

by Bob Sullo

Let’s begin with a couple of unsettling statistics: A study by Editorial Projects in Education Research suggests that 30 percent of ninth graders fail to graduate. In some urban and rural areas, that figure is even higher. Adding insult to injury, Mike Schmoker, in his book Results Now, reports that in 85 percent of classrooms observed as part of a study that included 1,500 observations, less than half the students were paying attention. It’s no wonder teachers can grow discouraged.

The problem is not that teachers don’t know how to teach. With innovations in professional development, a well-crafted curriculum, and a commitment to high standards, teachers have never been so capable of delivering instruction.

No, the problem is one of motivation. Ask teachers about students who are underachieving and they inevitably cite a lack of motivation as a primary culprit.

The reason we have not been able to solve the motivation crisis is that we continue to cling to an outdated, faulty belief that behavior is nothing more than a predictable response to rewards and punishments and that motivation is an external phenomenon. This erroneous belief is reflected in the very question teachers ask: “How do I motivate my students?” as if motivation is delivered from the outside.

This model, which I call the “compliance model” for reasons that will soon become clear, relies on two basic strategies to externally motivate students: threaten to punish those who don’t perform and reward those who do. It’s pretty straightforward. On the surface it even looks like it works. But it doesn’t work because motivation comes from within, as the following story illustrates.

Imagine you have given a writing assignment that is due the next day. To motivate Jason, one of your many reluctant learners, you speak to him at the end of class. “Jason,” you begin, “are you planning to get me your paper tomorrow?”

“Huh? Whatever,” a distracted Jason answers, as he prepares to catch up with his friends heading to their next class.

“Jason,” you continue, “remember if you don’t turn your paper in on time, you lose 10 points every day it’s late. You don’t want to fail, do you?”


“Then I can expect to see your paper tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure,” says Jason, avoiding eye contact and speaking without emotion. “No problem.” He hurries down the hall and joins his friends.

The next day, Jason turns in his paper. While it represents his typical substandard work, at least you believe you “motivated” Jason to get his paper done on time with the threat of a lower grade for a late paper. But what really motivated Jason?

Like all of us, Jason was motivated by what he wanted at the moment. During your conversation with him, what Jason wanted was to escape from you and join his friends. He was savvy enough to realize that telling you what you wanted to hear - that the paper would be turned in on time – gave him the best chance of getting what he wanted, to join his friends as they made their way down the hall. Despite outward appearances, you didn’t motivate Jason. He was internally motivated and behaved to get what he wanted.

I identify this model as the “compliance model” because students may comply, but as Jason’s substandard effort proves, external motivation never inspires quality. If your goal is simple compliance, this model works well enough, I guess. But if your goal is to inspire students to do high quality work, the compliance model isn’t adequate.

While many teachers I have consulted with over the years accept that threats and punishment do little to increase motivation, virtually every teacher uses and values the flip side of the coin: rewards. Positive reinforcement is woven so deeply into the educational psyche that when I question its usefulness it borders on heresy. The fact is, however, that trying to motivate students with external rewards is a damaging practice. No teacher means for this to happen, but an important unspoken message is shouted loudly when we offer students an external reward for learning: “What we are asking you to do is not useful in its own right but it’s worth doing because we’ll give you something valuable if you do it.” When we tell students “You may talk with a classmate for five minutes at the end of class as long as you read quietly for the next 15 minutes,” we unintentionally communicate the following anti-educational message: “Reading is not enjoyable, but if you comply you’ll get to do something worthwhile like talking to a friend (or going to the gym, or playing a game on the computer, etc).” External rewards for learning devalue what we teach, even if that is not our intent.

Worse, the threat of sanctions and the promise of external rewards don’t guarantee compliance. Many students remain noncompliant, stuck in a cycle of academic failure no matter how well-orchestrated a reward/punishment model you implement. Why? Because our behavior is not a reaction to outside stimuli. We are internally driven to satisfy our needs, including the need to be autonomous. Enduring teacher-imposed sanctions or forfeiting potential rewards is worth it for many students because it allows them to retain control of their lives. Many students find it powerfully intoxicating to remain unmoved by your attempts to control them and gladly suffer the consequences.
 The punishment/reward model offers compliance – at best – with noncompliance by a substantial number of students. What’s a teacher to do? What’s the alternative?

First, recognize that motivation comes from within. Our task as educators is not to motivate our students but to inspire them to be motivated to learn what we are trying to teach, helping them see academic excellence as inherently valuable, not something they “have to do.”

How can teachers inspire their students and foster the internal motivation that fuels academic excellence? Try implementing the following to move from the compliance model to one that supports the development of internal motivation.

Create a need-satisfying classroom. Motivation – what we want – has its roots in universal needs shared by all students. Among them are the needs to connect, to be free, and to have fun. For each lesson you plan to teach, ask yourself the following:

• “If the students do what I ask them to do, will they have an opportunity to interact and connect with each other? Will they be able to meet their social need responsibly while engaged academically?”

• “If the students do what I ask them to do, will they be able to make some choices and satisfy the need to be autonomous and self-governing?”

• “Will the students enjoy themselves during our class? Have I infused fun into our lesson even as we work hard?”

When your class is need-satisfying, students are likely to be academically productive, be less disruptive, and develop the internal motivation you want them to have. Conversely, if students can’t meet their needs by doing what you ask them to do, there is virtually no chance of them being adequately motivated to do high quality work. Because we behave in an effort to satisfy our needs, it is essential that teachers create need-satisfying classes that foster motivation. You can learn more in my book, The Motivated Student, where a simple, powerful lesson-planning process is described in detail.

Engage learners by asking them to envision academic success. Too often we tell students our expectations without asking them theirs. Precisely because motivation comes from within, it is essential that students develop their goals and expectations for the year, the unit, the next assignment. At the beginning of the school year, say something like this to your students using language that matches your style and is compatible with the developmental level of the students you teach:

• “As your teacher, I want all of you to be successful. More importantly, I invite you to decide if you want to be a successful student. What does being ‘successful’ mean to you? What expectations do you have for yourself? How will you feel if you achieve the kind of success you want in this class? Do you want to have that feeling? What exactly do you need to do to get what you want?”
Throughout the school year, regularly engage students by having them identify their goals. When starting a new unit of instruction, say something like:

• “When this unit is over, you will receive a grade. What grade do you want to earn? What kinds of things do you need to do in order to earn the grade you want? How will you feel when you have earned a good grade and learned something new? What can we do together to make sure you stay focused on your goal?”

Comments like these give students ownership of their education and promote responsibility. To cultivate responsibility, engage students by actively asking them what they want from their education. Routinely interacting with students in this way helps build powerful internal motivation and moves you well beyond the compliance model.

Show the relevance of what you teach. When I conduct staff development workshops, teachers clamor for information they can use. The same is true of students. When they see that they can use what you are teaching, they immediately become engaged and motivated to learn. While relevance is helpful to all students, it is especially crucial during middle school. The developmental issues of early adolescence make middle school students particularly self-absorbed. During this developmental period, students make meaning by relating new learning to their personal lives. Here are ways to engage students and instantly create relevance:

• In math, use your students’ names in any word problems you create. The underlying mathematical process is identical, but students are remarkably more interested in solving problems about people they know. When an answer “matters,” they will work harder to find it.

• In the language arts and social studies areas, have students write to the characters they are studying. For example, ask students to advise George Washington how to deal with a group of dispirited soldiers at Valley Forge.

• Don’t be afraid to be direct. Ask students, “What are some ways we can use this information? Why do you think this is important?”

• Too many teachers choose to be offended when students ask, “Why do we need to learn this?” Instead, use this question as a way to explain the importance and relevance of what you teach. The question is a gift-wrapped “teachable moment.” Don’t squander it.

Maintain realistic expectations. There is almost nothing as demoralizing as being asked to do something that you believe you can never do well. Fortunately for most adults, our society lets us avoid many of these tasks and we hire people with expertise to do what we can’t do well. Many teachers are happy to pay someone else to prepare their income tax return, repair a leaky pipe, and keep their automobile in good running condition. Students don’t have that luxury. They are expected to complete every assignment and demonstrate mastery in every class, regardless of their interest or ability. When students feel as if they are doomed to failure, their drive to preserve self-esteem and appear competent leads many of them to give up or act out. It’s better to be thought of as “bright, but lazy” or a class clown than to be labeled as incapable of doing the expected work. To maintain realistic expectations:

• Create lessons that allow every student to be challenged and to succeed. By differentiating instruction, more students will be able to meet your expectations.

• If you have been grading students against each other, stop! Instead, grade students on their progress. Every student can improve and improvement feels good and fosters motivation. There’s no need to “water down” grades or “dumb down” the curriculum. You can grade students based on their progress and still honestly identify where they score in relation to grade level expectations and state standards.

Students already motivated to succeed academically typically fare reasonably well when offered external rewards or threatened with punishment. The most we can hope for the majority, however, is that they will comply with our expectations. It’s time to move beyond the compliance model, an approach whose limits are exposed year after year despite the noble efforts of dedicated teachers. Rather than settling for the compliance that comes when we attempt to control, we can inspire students by creating need-satisfying classrooms characterized by relevance and realistic expectations. In such collaborative environments, students will be inspired and develop a sense of responsibility and the powerful internal motivation needed to do high quality academic work. I hope this year you will give up the compliance model and give yourself permission to be an inspiring teacher.

Sullo is an educational consultant with more than 30 years experience as a classroom teacher, school psychologist and middle school administrator. He has written a number of books highlighting internal motivation and responsibility, including Activating the Desire to Learn (ASCD, 2007); The Inspiring Teacher: Making a Positive Difference in Students’ Lives (NEA Professional Library, 2008); and The Motivated Student: Unlocking the Enthusiasm for Learning (ASCD, 2009). For information about staff development workshops, visit or contact the author at



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