It is the motivation, stupid!


It is motivation, isn’t it. As it was the economy for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign.

Reproduction of the existing ad infinitum?

I am not so sure about the economy, but I am definitely certain that as far as  learning is concerned the key factor is and will always be motivation: the learner’s motivation. Of course, teachers need to be motivated too, intrinsically, to do the job well.

In these pandemic times, when our habitual ways of dispensing education and schooling were challenged we saw a lot of text on the challenges of the situation and the solutions teachers, creative teachers, could find. This is great and many many teachers have been doing a great job without really being acknowledged for it. Still, it is probably also a very good time to reflect further and deeper about how we organise schooling and education in general and why we do it the way we do it. 

When I look around I see lots of things that are published on how to best “do it”, the various collections of “how to” tricks and tips, things to do and not to do, material support we have or should have, and many more things. What I do not see are texts and thoughts about motivation to learn, self-directed exploration, the pleasure of learning, the power of curiosity, etc.

It is as if the future of education and schooling were a matter of slight adjustments in the organisation of the existing school system. When the Finnish authorities announce that from the age of 16 onwards, they will drop the organisation of schooling along academic subject lines but focus rather on problem-solving and exploration it is a rare event and has many education professionals (practitioners and policy makers) shake their heads in disbelief. Although it is a step in the right direction. It aims at authentically putting the curiosity and motivation of the learners at the centre, not just as words in glossy school profile descriptions and Sunday speeches.

Anyway, what do we mean when we speak of “learning”? While in theory we all know that learning is something fundamental, profound and life changing, we do in practice often settle for learning interpreted as repetition, parroting, testing, examining, doing as one is told, believing what one is told, settling for a life that is and not going for a life that could be. 

And while critical thinking and the analytical mind is never far in discourses about education, in practice it is too often about the reproduction of the existing or as Ivan Illich put it in his book Deschooling Society (1972): “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” 

The concerns around “How to manage learners and their learning” have been around for a long time and have fuelled numerous debates, and they do not fail to reappear strongly in today’s context of COVID19-before-during-and-after-times. 

It is certain that the closing down of schools and first attempts to generalise tele-schooling pose major challenges to our ways of seeing schooling and all that goes with it

  1. Context of schooling – And going to school, school buses, traveling time, walking, social context and contacts and exchanges and interactions, meals, breaks, subjects, sports, tests, chatting, etc, etc, and endless list
  2. Technology – And a challenge to our understanding of technology – its potential and power and things it cannot do – the procedures you need to adopt to make it work, but also the competences and hardware you need, everyone needs
  3. Methodology – And the novelty of the situation of how to prepare, present, teach, …. when we have been used to and trained for one  very specific context

Proposals abound to help face the situation, training is offered for aspects, demands are made for appropriate means, criticism is expressed at the government’s, administration’s, institution’s, teacher’s, etc  inability, unwillingness to provide what is needed. This is all okay and to be expected. And yet, why not take this opportunity to dig deeper, think further, reexamine unquestioned beliefs about what good education and schooling ought to look like.

Motivation, curiosity and pleasure

Where does it come from that we somehow still believe that education and schooling has to be difficult and hard and serious? Serious as in a no-smiling and no-pleasure sort of way. If we did not believe that, how could we accept that children come home from school, tired, stressed, bored and unhappy. Do you remember how much young children look forward to going to school, how excited they are and how much pleasure they derive from learning? During the first year (at the age of six or so), perhaps the second year too. Then, slowly but surely learning seems to become something they do not like. 

“Free human dialogue, wandering wherever the agility of the mind allows, lies at the heart of education. If teachers do not have the time, the incentive, or the wit to produce that; if students are too demoralized, bored, or distracted to muster the attention their teachers need of them, then THAT is the educational problem which has to be solved. . . That problem . . . is metaphysical in nature, not technical”  Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, 1995

And yet, it is motivation that makes the difference, whatever situation you find yourselves in. Motivated children, youths, parents and teachers will manage successfully any situation and find solutions and overcome challenges and above all learn, quicker, more in-depth, with pleasure and will continue doing so.

We should seriously consider how much time and resources, how much human potential we use up to make schooling based on extrinsic motivation work. Hours, days, years on end. How much we could gain if motivation and curiosity were kept alive and central in the learning process. Banking on extrinsic motivation vs intrinsic motivation is like trying to speed up a Vespa while competing against a Ferrari.

“A second major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives.”  Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1972


Motivation is not about tricks and manipulation that you play as a teacher and the better you play the more motivated the learners will be. It is about a learning environment where the wish to learn is a fire that is continuously burning.


Here I like learning – Primary School Straden, Südoststeiermark, Austria


Let’s attempt to create that sort of learning environment, let’s take inspiration from many who have thought and reflected about these issues before us and let us find practicable solutions for today and tomorrow. This would be much more rewarding than just to reflect on how to better deliver lessons over the distance. 

I offer the quotes that follow as some more food for thought and inspiration.


“Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning. They may save the teacher some trouble, but the trouble they inflict on the minds of students is a blight and a curse.”  Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, 1995

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”  Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1972

“When we consider a child’s natural interest in things, we begin to realize the dangers of both reward and punishment. Rewards and punishment tend to pressure a child into interest. But true interest is the life force of the whole personality, and such interest is completely spontaneous.”  A.S. Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, 1960

“Children do not need teaching as much as they need love and understanding.” A.S. Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing,1960

“You know that I don’t believe that anyone has ever taught anything to anyone. I question that efficacy of teaching. The only thing that I know is that anyone who wants to learn will learn. And maybe a teacher is a facilitator, a person who puts things down and shows people how exciting and wonderful it is and asks them to eat.”  Carl R. Rogers, Freedom to Learn, 1969

“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”  Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, 1995


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