Anytime I hear or read about “motivating students,” I cringe a bit.

An organizing truism (one that I learned during my twenty-year community organizing career) is that you might be able to bribe, cajole, badger, or threaten somebody to do something over the short-term (I’ve certainly done my share of that, and you can read about the negative consequences of doing so at the Public School Insights blog post The Trouble With Incentives and in my previous posts). But I don’t think you can really “motivate” anybody to do anything beyond a very, very, very short timeline, after which the initial enthusiasm quickly dissipates.

However, you can help another person find what will motivate themselves.

As a teacher, the primary tools I use in that quest are my ears. I try to get to know my students — what they like, what they don’t like, what they worry about, what their hopes and dreams are. I then try to help frame what we are doing in the classroom in the context of helping them achieve their goals. How can what we are learning help them become a carpenter, a doctor, a professional basketball player; or be perceived differently by their friends and family in the near-term? Or anything else they want to accomplish? And learning these genuine self-interests of students, or of anyone else, will only come in the context of a caring and trusting relationship.

Another way I use the information I gain is by developing some of the lessons I’ve shared here. These have included ones on the brain being a muscle that grows with exercise; the long-term importance of developing more self-control; goal-setting skills; and the discipline of visualizing success. My most recent one, which I’ll be doing next week, will be on sleep. They are all geared towards helping students see how making the right choices helps them to achieve their goals.

I have not been successful, nor is it likely that will I ever be successful, helping ALL my students find that internal (intrinsic) motivation. For the greater good of the entire class (and my own sanity), it’s likely that a little bribery, badgering, cajoling, and threatening will always have a place in my room. But it has to be kept in its place.

I referred earlier to the Public School Insights blog post titled “The Trouble With Incentives.” The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” Let’s put a greater priority on helping students “incentivize” themselves.

Let’s try not to tell them that they will die from the cold or from being eaten by wolves if they don’t start a fire RIGHT NOW and RIGHT HERE and in THIS WAY, or tell them that, if they do so, they’ll get an extra bag of marshmallows to toast. Instead, let’s try to find out where they want to set their fire and why, and maybe we can help them learn how to use matches or a flint and give advice on the best place to find some dry wood…