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Motivation for Learning

Motivation for Learning An Article about the new science of motivation and its implications for pupil learning, progress and achievement.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Teaching & Learning, Any Subject, All Ages

Tags: Motivation Autonomy Mastery Purpose Daniel Pink Drive

Carrot & Stick

Do it and you'll get a reward. Don't and there'll be trouble; a punishment. Carrots and sticks; stickers and warnings; Golden Time and detentions - they're manageable, efficient and, if systems are rigorously implemented, effective. Up to a point. In 1993 lecturer Alfie Kohn provided compelling evidence that if-then behaviour management was flawed and ultimately damaging to pupils' achievement and autonomy. We were training children to learn by aspiring to a reward or avoiding a punishment, rather than for the value implicit in the learning itself.

He argued that we were punishing children by how we rewarded them.

All change? Not at all. If anything, motivation of this kind is more pervasive that ever. Sit well and you'll get a merit; complete your work and you'll get a sticker; get the grade and you'll get into the top group. Mess up and you stay in at playtime There's nothing wrong with sitting well, completing work, getting the grade, and learning about socially acceptable behaviour, just the means by which these things are caused to happen.

Rewards Degrade Performance

16 years later Author Daniel Pink has taken up Kohn's mantel. He cites new evidence which is just as compelling as Kohn's. For example, in one study, pre-schoolers were observed to see which ones enjoyed drawing. One group of these drawers was then promised a small reward if they used their free time to draw. Another group were given an unexpected reward after they'd chosen to draw. And those in a third group were given no reward and simply left to enjoy their drawing. Over time, the first group spent less and less time drawing, while the other 2 groups maintained their interest.

In another study, adults in India were given a range of simple tasks linked to varying financial rewards. One group received small rewards, another got medium sized payments and a third group very large rewards for successfully completing the same tasks. Performance in the first two groups was similar but in the third, significantly worse. Pink argues that if-then rewards make us forfeit some of our autonomy, narrow our focus and switch some of our attention away from the actual task.

Carrot and stick is long past its use by date and needs an upgrade.

Purpose, Autonomy & Mastery

Pink doesn't completely dismiss if-then/carrot-stick, but links it specifically to tasks that are mostly automatic and do not require creative thinking or problem solving i.e. not teaching or most learning. This kind of task was born of the Industrial Revolution where if-then motivation was essential for success.

Effective 21st century motivation has three elements: purpose, autonomy and mastery.

Purpose is a personally compelling reason for acting: to meet personal goals; to make the world a better place, to find something out, to satisfy a curiosity...certainly NOT to please someone else who has a reward for us 

Autonomy is about the personal control over a situation and the responsibility and accountability that goes with it. Pink says that the more control we have over what is done, how, when and with whom, the more motivated we will be to engage with it.

Finally, mastery. He links this to flow, grit and growth mindset stating that we humans prefer flow-state tasks in which there are clear goals, immediate feedback and where our skill is just a tiny notch below what the challenge demands. When our heads are uncluttered by the external rewards we'll get by completing a task, we can focus all our attention and effort into mastering it.

Changing Motivation One Carrot at a Time

Old-style motivation is too firmly embedded into our schools to change overnight. But if we believe in a more genuine and effective way to engage pupils with learning then we can set to work evolving the system. Here are a few ways to begin:

  • Award certificates for autonomy, grit, flow and growth mindset.
  • Hand out stickers/merits after the task and don't promise them beforehand.
  • Ask 'why?' 5 times of any learning objective - how genuine is the lesson's purpose?
  • Specifically teach pupils about grit, growth mindset and new-style motivation.
  • Catch yourself and your pupils when you're doing something because of the task, not because of the reward associated with it.


RSA Animation about Dan Pink's work on motivation
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Class Dojo animations about growth mindset
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Drive by Daniel Pink
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Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
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Related Resources:

Reward, Habit and Motivation

Selling Learning


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