Improving Schools: The Hierarchy of Motivation

student motivation


By Sean Slade

When we hear the word motivation, we think of inspiring speeches. We think of verbally inspiring our students to put forth effort and reach for the stars.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize
how close they were to success when they gave up.” —Thomas Edison

“All our dreams can come true,
if we have the courage to pursue them.” —Walt Disney

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys.
Make your lives extraordinary.” —Dead Poets Society

Are we missing crucial steps between inspiration and achievement? Are we missing (or ignoring) the foundations of motivation?

This month on the Whole Child Podcast, I spoke with author Richard Curwin and ASCD Emerging Leaders Ashanti Foster and John Hines, and followed up with a one-on-one conversation with Baruti Kafele: all on the topic of motivation. We didn’t talk about devising new ways to fire up students or new performance incentives, rather we discussed the sometimes forgotten or disregarded building blocks of motivation—hope, meaning, and challenge—and importance of developing engaging and supportive environments.


whole child triangle


Too often schools focus on the top of the hierarchy—challenge—and ignore the foundation. Motivation means challenge and encouragement to many, but it should first mean hope and belief. Curwin and Kafele talked about the critical need to develop a sense of belief in your students: Curwin described it as developing hope; Kafele described it as fostering belief.

Both talked about how motivation starts with relationships and knowing who your students are. There’s that word again: relationships. Whether we are discussing pedagogy, youth development, absenteeism, or motivation, the role of relationships continues to be key. In his recent book, Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success, Kafele explores how climate and culture shape students’ willingness to learn and offers a framework of reflective questions educators can ask themselves:

  1. Attitude toward students (do I believe in them?)
  2. Relationship with students (do I know them?)
  3. Compassion for students (do I care about them?)
  4. Environment for learning (do I provide my students with an environment of excellence?)
  5. Relevance in instruction (do I realize who my students are?)

Developing a sense of hope and belief in your students is a step that many of us may disregard or assume can be managed by effective lesson planning or a challenging activity. But how much would you care about pushing yourself if you did not believe that you are able to succeed?  If you didn’t at your core have a sense of hope, then why would you exert yourself?


The conversations also covered making meaning, connections, and relevance. If students do not see value in what they are learning, then what chance do we have of capturing their imagination? The art and skill of teaching comes not from reading a script; it comes from reaching your students. The only way you can adapt learning to suit them is to know them— who they are, where they come from, what they enjoy, and what they believe. Relevance also doesn’t automatically mean relevant content, though it can. It can also mean relevant pedagogy, context, and purpose.

Recognition and Encouragement (Not Rewards)

Appreciating, recognizing, and encouraging effort are essential to motivating students. Rewards are extrinsic; recognition and encouragement are intrinsic and validating. While rewards can affect short-term performance in tasks that you don’t want to do, they can have a negative impact on developing intrinsic motivation. If the activity is meaningful and has relevance, then extrinsic rewards should not be necessary.


Where should challenge come into play? Only once the other steps have been addressed. Challenge can increase hope, but only of hope has been established. It can add meaning and boost relevance, but only if these aspects have been considered. And it goes hand-in-hand with recognition and encouragement. Challenge is important; however it can be a false promise if the student isn’t ready. Challenge must be personalized to each student, and not one-size-fits-all. An unsuccessful challenge is one that puts achievement just out of reach. A successful challenge asks the student to reach, push, and stretch their capacity. Truly effective challenge isn’t demoralizing nor is it unfulfilling.

We have spent many hours, a lot of money, and much energy raising the bar—all the while assuming that all our students need is higher standards. Higher can be better, but only if the students are ready to meet the challenge. A challenge that is unrealistic, lacks meaning, or is being pushed by an extrinsic reward isn’t a reliable challenge—it’s a task to be completed. A challenge given to a student with little hope or belief in themselves or their situation is worse: it’s a punishment and a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

The tip of the motivation iceberg may include inspiring speeches and half-time demands, but the real work of motivation lies below the surface: it is the relationship, hope, belief, and meaning-building for all of our students that we do each day.


Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student’s social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here