What Motivates Learning?

The teacher asks a compelling question (at least he thought it was) and the students just stare.  Or worse, they don’t even hear the question because their minds are far away.  The student called upon dutifully reads from John Donne, but the rest of the class, again, is a million miles away.  One of the basic laws of learning is that the learner must be engaged, attentive, “there” in the class.  How does a teacher bring this basic requirement to pass?  What constitutes the conditions for an attentive student?

Having taught for a quarter of a century, I thought I would have the answer by now.  I thought that with enough experience and experimentation I would find the silver bullet that would set all minds to attentive consideration of the lesson at hand.  But I regularly still see the dull eye, the glazed look, the mind steering the body toward anything other than careful attention to the subject at hand.  While I think there are answers to be considered outside the scope of my own teaching choices, such as the effects of culture, technology, etc., I wish to spend some time in an series of extended meditations on the following brief mind map I have been considering regarding “The Motivation to Learn.”  Input is greatly valued.

Here is the mind map as it stands.  (If I update it, I will change it here.)

151214 mindmap of educational motivations 2

The first dichotomy is between internal and external motives.  There is some overlap even in these large categories.  Some internal motivations are affected by external ones, and vice versa.  I will try to spend some time on the external motivations, but I think the internal ones are significantly more important and harder to clarify, so most of my time will focus on these.  Like many of my blog plans, this may all get set aside at some point, but this is the plan for now.

At the heart of my meditations on motivation is the desire to cultivate virtue in my students.  I want them to want the right things: to love all things rightly.  Some will wonder at the position in my map of “Love” being at the bottom.  But I do believe it to be at the bottom or underlying everything else.  It is the deepest root.  I don’t believe it to be from without, but rather from within the student.  It is necessarily damaged by the damaged nature of the student, but it is there, can be cultivated, and should be meditated upon by those who would teach in a manner aimed at the humanity or soul of the student.  I think it is a meditation that saves the soul of the teacher at least as much as that of the student.  Teaching to glazed eyes kills the soul of the teacher as much as the one with the glazed eyes.


Who Over What

I have read over the years quite a bit of theory on organizational leadership.  Two general shrifts of thought seem to coalesce around the ideas of either Who or What.  Let me explain.

The “What” paradigm is often displayed in charts and outlines in order to show to what needs to be done.  There are lots of discussions about roles, responsibilities, oversight, and generally how things get “done.”  Efficiency is high on the list of desirable traits for this paradigm.  Having a “plan” is key.  And I believe this is quite necessary, but secondary to the other possible paradigm.

The “Who” paradigm emphasizes having the right people.  It focuses on who is around the table and how the synergy of their combined talents and skills can passionately move the organization in a missional direction.  Rather than specifically speaking to action, its focus tends to be more on appetite and passion.

The general notion is something like this:  if you get the right kind of people around the table, the right things will happen.

For a school, this seems intuitive and key, though somewhat uncommon.  Rather than finding the right “degrees” to implement specific “curriculum” I favor finding people who will self-replicate.  Of course, again, the first paradigm is not forgotten – there ought to be roles, responsibilities, curriculum, etc., but all that seems quite secondary to who it is that is implementing those “whats.”

So bringing this down to the here and now, a new leader of a school in particular is seeking to first get to know the passions and appetites of his faculty:

  • How do they integrate their lives?  or What is the relationship in their lives between Faith and Reason?
  • What are they reading?
  • Are they currently active as learners?
  • Can they and do they have a writing/thinking life, outside the requirements of their assigned teaching?
  • Do they teach “for free” i.e., Sunday School, civic involvement, Boy Scouts, etc.?

This will all begin placing your faculty on a continuum scale of say 1-10, with a “1” being someone who does none of the above and a “10” blowing the charts off everything above.  Once you know what you have, you then can begin working with each of them in turn to see if there can be movement upward on the scale.


Your “10” if you are blessed to have one, should simply be made into a discipler.  If they love to teach, then they will love to teach others to teach.  But you must work to build a place where “10” is the goal and enough resources of time, rest, love, peace, safety, etc. are in place to encourage all toward that goal.  But of course the tougher assignment for you is to see if the “1-4’s” are willing to move.  Some will just not have the appetite, especially if they are a 1-2.  With no interest, movement is tough.  Perhaps they would be happier somewhere else.  But remember, students become what they behold – your students are becoming that 1 or 2 level teacher.  Sure, the next year they might get an 8, and be blessed, but what if several of your students themselves become 1’s and 2’s while beholding that one poor teacher of yours?  Just a little bit of cancer is life threatening.  And don’t ever underestimate the power a “1” can have on your 4-6’s.

Place the Who over the What, always.


Getting Real Local


I got to thinking about the reforming of education when I realized as a full time teacher that real education in America was broken.  This realization was slow in coming.  I saw many signs before I read their meaning.  And this was 20 years ago.  A quick overview of what I saw back then included:

  1. A lack of trust between parents, students, and school.  I could build this one out for several book’s worth of words, but the short version is sufficient – none of the three groups trusted the other.
  2. Efficiency replaced quality – finding a way to do the same instruction quicker and easier could get you a stage at a teacher’s conference in no time, but talking about how to go deeper, become better, take our time and really make this thing called education become humane got you a ticket out the door.
  3. Questions will kill you – I got drummed out of my teaching post for the stated reason that I sent students home to dinner asking questions they “just don’t need to be thinking about” (things like, “Why was Jesus poor His whole life?” or “Did God choose me or did I choose Him?” or “How does our family obey the Great Commission?”).  Asking questions, and getting students to ask questions, seems to be against the grain.  I just never knew.
  4. College is King – this one is really bad now, but it was bad back then too.  If my kid gets anything other than A’s in Middle School, he won’t qualify for Honors and AP in High School and then we are screwed in college.  So when my Bible class started giving folks anything other than an “A” and especially when some managed to fail, things just could not continue as they were.

That brings me to my title: educational reform must be done at the local level.

Any reform that is at a national, or organizational, or abstract level will fail.  That is just the way it works.  Organizations sustain themselves and unify their constituents by agreeing on things, and there is no way they can agree on enough to actually affect real change in specific ways: their agreements are just too general.  So a bill is passed, or an idea is put on bumper stickers, or some such grandiose thing is done, and people feel good because something “got done” and yet in the end nothing changes, or by diverting local action to the national level, things actually get worse in the meantime.  We must change our own appetites, and then our children’s appetites will change, and in a few generations, with enough change in appetites (away from the points made above), we may have better education in our nation.  And none of that happens without internal spiritual change, and none of it happens unless it is local, and I mean so local that it has the same address as your water bill has on it when it comes to your mail box.