A Framework for Student Motivation?

Ms. Hammond’s post “Igniting the Fire of Learning” powerfully illustrates the connection between motivation and success, based on Matthew Kelly’s explanation of “the differences between highly engaged versus disengaged people”. But that begs the question, if the connection is so clear, and the results so dramatic, why are some students not motivated for success in school?

Ms. Hammond and the admin team at JH regularly discuss matters of concern for our students, and this post comes out of a conversation we had following her most recent post. In our school leadership positions, we see the broad spectrum of student work, from the highly engaged and successful, to the discouraged and disengaged. We know that our students work hard, and their families encourage their efforts. In spite of this, sometimes students still struggle with their motivation. Sometimes even those who are successful are going through the motions; they are getting the work done, but they are not finding that school motivates and energises them. As school leaders we have to consider the reasons for this, in the hope of finding ways to change it.

Some critics of the school system believe that the school system itself decreases motivation.  Testing, grades and external rewards focus our attention on the rewards and grades, rather than on the learning itself.  In the past, school was designed as a industrialized sorting mechanism for students, each categorized by their ability. Even though we now view school as a place where ability is developed, with success for all students as the goal, we still use some of the methods from the sorting system.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions as teachers, our presentation of the knowledge and skills in our subject area doesn’t connect with the reality that our students experience. Students don’t see the purpose in what they are being presented with. (Students sometimes complain that a class is ‘boring’, but that’s too easy to say.  We’ve all seen young people patiently work through a ‘boring’ activity of their choosing because it helps them meet a personal goal, and in school we’ve seen students disengaged even from highly interesting classroom activities).  Sometimes students may be interested in the class work, but are unable to succeed on the assignments teacher gives, and so they become discouraged.

Sometimes, what a student wants is just too different from what the school system wants.  Students are engaged with school to the extent that their goals match the goals of the school system.  The more those goals match, the more motivated the student will be.  The more those goals diverge, the more a student’s motivation may flag or fail.

This past Saturday at Science World in Vancouver, a friend of mine, Goran Kimovski, organized TEDxKidsBC, an event focused on spotlighting and developing the ways that young people can be successful at a high level.  The stories are fantastic and inspiring.  They show young people being supported to blend their passion, skill, and leadership into amazing accomplishments.  School sometimes intersects with what they are doing, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Somewhere along their journey these young people found or were given a framework that helped them focus their purpose and develop their personal clarity.

So the big question for us is, how to we make the school system a motivating place to be for more students? The system has tended to focus on producing standardized achievement results.  Could we shift our system so that individualization is possible?  What if school were a framework where every teacher and every student could focus their purpose and develop their personal clarity for themselves?  What would that framework look like? How would it engage the passion and motivation of all our students?


I am an educational leader, a photographer, a thinker, and a parent. We live in a world of abundance on the West Coast of Canada. I learn together with wonderful people in my home, community, work, and church. My goal for my students is that they leave school with confidence based on demonstrated excellence in at least one domain of learning, and with the life, employment and thinking skills to open the many doors of their future.

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