By Fran Kick

When do learning experiences capture the interest and commitment of students? What engages people and motivates them to learn? Are we “carrot and sticking ” ourselves and our students to death – creating more of a  what’s in it for me” kind of attitude? How can I increase commitment, drive, and cooperation in the classroom? How do students intrinsically develop the self motivation to succeed on their own?  Before we look into answers to these questions, perhaps we should define what motivation really is.

The word motivation is based on the word motive (as in what’s your motive?) and too many times gets bantered about without a true understanding what it means.

There are two perspectives to motivation.  Both are important to understand when it comes to teaching and learning.

The first and more commonly misused or misunderstood is extrinsic motivation. As the word extrinsic implies (as in the word externally), this type of motivation comes from someone or somewhere else.  It is usually dependent on someone or something to get you going. Let’s say I wanted to motivate you to clean up the room (pick up any trash off the floor), I can either create an incentive or threaten you to do what I want you to do. On the one hand, I could offer you $100.00 for every piece of trash you pick up and throw away. Would you do it? You bet! In fact, I’d have a whole bunch of people willing to help you out, pick up more trash, and really clean the room (windows too!), even coming back and asking if there was anything else you could do! On the other hand, if I pulled out a gun, fired a few shots in the air to show you that it was real, pointed the gun to your head and asked you to pick up the trash in the room–would you do it?  You bet! But, I don’t think I’d have anyone else volunteering to help you out, you’d just pick up the trash (you wouldn’t clean the windows), and I don’t think you’d be asking if there was anything else you could do! You’ll be out of there and chances are you won’t come back! Positive or negative – I could get you to do what I want you to do, but with the negative you don’t come back, I wouldn’t have others interested in getting involved, and you’d only do the very minimum of what I asked you to do. Clearly the money works better than the gun. Positive works better than the negative. But, both are extrinsic and will only work if you’re interested in the incentive or threatened by the punishment. Plus both of them depend on someone else to get you to do what they want you to do. That’s not self motivation! Self-Motivation comes from within–it’s internal!

The second type of motivation is intrinsic motivation, which is different than extrinsic motivation. In terms of learning, research has shown that intrinsic motivation is more desirable than extrinsic motivation. In fact extrinsic motivation has actually been found to undermine intrinsic motivation! Maybe that’s why the more constant use of extrinsic motivation (positive or negative– “carrots or sticks” ) an individual experiences, the more they start to think… “Why should I do it for you?  What will I get if I do? or What will you do if I don’t?” This kind of attitude certainly supports the “what’s in it for me” kind of mentality in the world. In reality and according to Alfie Kohn, extrinsic motivation is actually just a form of manipulation.  Something someone does to someone else to get them to do what they want them to do.  That’s not self-motivation! Self-motivated students are not waiting for someone to “carrot and stick” them into doing what needs to be done–they (in the words of Nike®) JUST DO IT!  They have an internal, ever-present, continuously improving, inspiring motive to make things happen.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re asking yourself “then how do I intrinsically motivate students to do what I want them to do?”  

But perhaps that isn’t even the right question to ask, because of some of the things we now know about intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation. In all honesty, you can’t motivate other people! That sounds real optimistic (especially coming from someone who is often referred to as a “motivational speaker!”) but the truth is you can only TRY to extrinsically motivate other people. The key word is try, because if the incentive isn’t big enough or the threat isn’t great enough–they won’t do it! You cannot intrinsically motivate other people! Why not? Well, it’s because people are already intrinsically motivated! That’s right–everyone has motivation (intrinsic motivation). We all do things for different reasons. We all have different motives that inspire us to do what we do. You may not agree with some of the reasons people have, but none the less they have them. That, too, is one of the reasons you can’t intrinsically motivate other people, because people are intrinsically motivated for their reasons NOT yours!

The question, “how do I intrinsically motivate students to do what I want them to do?” might be stated more appropriately by asking “how do I create an environment within which students will motivate themselves?”  

As teachers, our job is to facilitate learning by establishing the conditions, coordinating the resources, and bringing to life the curriculum with the students not just for them. William Lofquist in his work explores the different approaches to working with students as a spectrum of adult attitudes toward young people. Viewing students in terms of objects, recipients, and resources influences not only attitudes but the nature and quality of motivation within a group.

Inspiring individuals to get more involved is often very difficult if students are treated as objects. The teacher tends to always be in control with no intention of letting the group be more involved other than simply “doing what they’re told to do.” Control is the goal. Conformity of the class and their acceptance of the program as it is under the teacher’s direction is the by product.  A paradox exists when the teacher finds themselves always telling people “what to do and when to do it” while at the very same time the students are sick and tired of being told “what to do and when to do it!” The teachers lament becomes, “why do I always have to tell everyone what to do and when to do it? Why can’t they figure it out on their own? Nobody does anything unless I tell them to! When are they going to do things on their own?”

Whenever students are seen as recipients, the teacher is still in control and “allows” students or members in the group to be involved  somewhat.” The attitude of the teacher primarily emphasizes how the students will benefit from participating in what the teacher has set up for them. This perspective is based on the teacher’s notion that they know what’s best for the students and will decide how everything will be done. The teacher sets everything up and lets the students participate. Occasionally students might be given the opportunity to provide feedback or share in the decision making process (however limited it may be).  Although this attitude is more “involving of others,” there still is a sense of the teacher making all of the decisions for the students. A real “I’ve-taken-your-ideas- into-consideration-and- here’s-what-I’ve-decided-we’re-going-to-do” kind of approach.

When students are viewed as resources, the relationship is based on a teacher’s respect for the contribution each student in the group can make. The teacher, whenever possible, feasible, and practical, shares in a more collaborative approach with the students. The attitude of working with the students is based on a level of respect for the contribution students can make to the planning, operation, and evaluation of the group.

The teacher is constantly facilitating a culture in the classroom in which students are viewed, respected and involved as an important significantly contributing member of the group.

So when do learning experiences capture the interest and commitment of students? Perhaps it’s when learning engages everyone involved collaboratively as important, significant, contributing resources in a process that’s intrinsically satisfying vs. just extrinsically rewarding. Isn’t the ultimate goal to make learning something that’s rewarding in and of itself? Can that happen if we’re constantly “carrot-and-sticking” students to do what we want them to do? Involving the students in making something happen goes beyond simply maintaining control in the classroom. When teachers create classroom or learning environments that give students an opportunity to participate actively in making choices, students see themselves as a more significant participating member of the group. Their sense of autonomy, commitment, drive, cooperation, and desire all increase–internally. Thus resulting in a higher level of self-motivation to KICK IT IN!

FRAN KICK motivates himself to KICK IT IN!
An educational consultant, author and certified speaking professional, Fran is the creator and presenter of KICK IT IN.
Since taking an educational leave of absence from teaching, he has developed his part time speaking adventure into a full time mission and presents over one hundred programs every year across the U.S. to thousands of students plus the many people who work with them.  From fifth grade students to Fortune 500 professionals Fran Kick always KICKs IT IN!
For more information and resources please go to