Learning should be joyful


Jun 13, 2014

Why do some students languish unmotivated at school, counting the days until summer vacation, whereas others are so motivated that they can scarcely stand the thought of three months away from their desks?

Schools have many options at their disposal for motivating students. Selecting the right motivator for each circumstance is critical to boosting student achievement. Love of learning is arguably the most powerful intrinsic motivator, and yet for many administrators and teachers, the idea of designing schools around experiences that bring students joy feels frivolous compared to other options for compelling behavior. What are the other options for motivating students, apart from providing experiences that students innately love?

One option is brute force. Schools could chain students to their seats to try to coerce learning. Youth detention centers sometimes have no choice but to lock students in their classroom for the duration of the lesson. In some circumstances, force is in fact the most appropriate motivator; for example, if a kindergartener runs into a busy street without regard to oncoming traffic, a good teacher would surely want to grab that child by the arm and pull her to safety.

Another option is punishment. Not too far in our past, corporal punishment was regarded as an appropriate means of requiring students to pay attention in class. More common today are detention slips, the principal’s office, suspensions, and bad reports to parents. Yelling at students is another common choice in the punishment category.

A third option is rewards. Some teachers use a system akin to the Good Behavior Game, first tested in 1969, which is an approach to classroom management based on rewarding students for on-task behaviors during instruction. Good behavior earns privileges, such as extra free time or recess. Research shows that the Good Behavior Game has positive effects on increasing on-task behaviors. Additional research by Allans and Fryer deepened the understanding of how to design incentive programs that improve achievement at relatively low cost.

Force, punishment, and rewards can all be appropriate in some circumstances. But they share a major limitation—they all rely on extrinsic motivation. They depend on an outsider to motivate learning, and if that person is distracted or away (heaven help the substitute teacher), the student will drift. In some cases extrinsic motivators actually promote poor behavior if they encourage students to cheat to avoid the punishment or win the prize.

The alternative is to motivate students to learn by making school intrinsically motivating. When learning is joyful and desirable, students are hungry to learn on their own, without outside persuasion. Mahatma Gandhi said that “power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.” Love of learning is at the top of the motivation ladder.

Motivation Ladder


What does school look like when joy is the bedrock of learning? Students are reluctant to put their beloved books down at the end of free-read time. Children huddle together to continue a discussion about an interesting question, even after class is out. Students keep building their diorama, working on a math equation, or investigating a subject purely out of internal desire. I wrote here about the flow that emerges when students experience joy in learning. Even long summer vacations lose their appeal at some point.

Research suggests that two elements are especially capable of helping students love school. First, students need to feel successful. They need to feel that they are making progress and accomplishing something, rather than experiencing repeated failure or hitting up against walls. Second, they need to have fun with friends. When those two conditions are met, school is on track to become a place that connects the process of learning with joy.

Integrating the right experiences together to deliver these elements is a topic for another day. But educators can take the first step by reflecting about whether their environments are set up with the intention to produce love of learning, rather than fear of or hope for some external thing.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.

  • I LOVE Heather’s weekly columns. Admittedly, I’m a Heather Staker fan – so I came from a point of bias. But I forward these weekly columns each week to my wife as we try to apply them to our own children. Keep the good thinking coming, Heather!

  • Thanks for this reflective piece Heather. Spot on. We must find our moment or passion in learning. Intrinsic over extrinsic. Love the motivation ladder figure.

    As a former accountant and CPA turned educational psychologist, I have been pondering ideas of intrinsic motivation with various technologies and reading a series of psychology of motivation books and research articles for a couple of decades now. Back in 2000, I decide to write my own book on how emerging Web technologies can foster learner motivation and retention.

    It took a while. In 2007, I started collecting articles on it and I started writing 3 years ago. I finished the book last month and decided to give the book award as a free e-book in total (http://tec-variety.com/) as well as by chapter (http://tec-variety.com/freestuff.php). There are more than 100+ activities for motivation and retention online. In the book, I describe a framework called TEC-VARIETY wherein each letter represents a motivational principle. There are chapters on creating a safe ton or climate for learning, engagement, relevancy, autonomy, interactivity and collaboration, goal setting, etc., as well as supporting and motivation instructors. Anyone can download, share, use, etc., and, with permission, translate. See what you think.

  • For years parents have scratched their heads on how
    to get their kids to be motivated without using a carrot or a stick.
    But wait, how motivated are parents and teachers themselves ?

    If you know that children are wired to learn anything by imitation,
    here’s a way to test that theory. My husband and I raised our 10-year daughter
    in three continents – the U.S, Europe and Asia. Your child is immersed in a
    different culture and language and lifestyle and they are confronted with the unknown
    and often a hostile environment – this is a road test of your parental hypotheses.
    Our attitude to difficulties is her attitude; Her principal’s role as founder, head of school,
    and hands-on class professor is exemplary. My daughter reads a book for two hours
    every school evening because I read for two hours each evening.
    It is a concept so ingrained that my daughter once spoke of her wayward cousin
    at the dinner table in France « on a le même âge, mais pas la même attitude/
    we have the same age but not the same attitude ».

    The highest education is not that which gives us information but which
    brings our life in harmony with all existence. Harmonization takes time.
    I’m not expecting my daughter to display and measure motivation at 10 years,
    but I’m expecting her to acquire most of these traits at 20 years:
    willingness to confront hostility and take risks, perseverance, curiosity,
    openess, absorption, discipline, high intrinsic motivation, tolerance for
    ambiguity, a broad range of interests, tendency to play with ideas,
    unconventionality in behavior, deep emotions, intuitiveness, opportunism,
    conflict between self-criticism and self confidence.

    K-12 education is simple (look at the Finns!) and has been unnecessarily
    complicated with A/B comparison findings with questionable short-term
    gains. In moving back to the U.S our daughter knows that life will be a lot more convenient but recalls feeling too coddled and assessed all the time.
    She thinks parents talk too much and they are too involved, and that many of her teachers are spoilt.

    [ As an Indian I know that Mahatma Gandhi is revered for his philosophy of non-violence
    but he is not revered for his parenting skills. It is well-documented that he was disowned
    by his children for putting his own principles before their interests, an action that he
    regretted in later life.]

  • Reminds me of McGregor’s work years ago on the alternative paradigms characterizing visions of work and workers. Theory X holds people as inherently lazy, prone to slacking and motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments. Theory Y posits that people are inherently curious, prone to focus on interesting tasks and motivated by accomplishments and comraderie. The ‘X-er’s’ have held sway for many generations in our schools and other institutions. But islands of ‘Y-ness’ continually are evident. In schooling, they can be seen in the kind of schools that the 1-% are wealthy enough to afford for their children (except when those kids are so unruly and disaffected that they must be sent away to military schools – also very expensive.)