Reformers On Motivation

Bill Gates, via Tom Hoffman:

… the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students.

It’s astonishing to me how many people develop their pet education theories assuming there is little or no interaction between motivation and learning, or that motivation is somehow outside the teacher’s job description. The assumption that motivation is entirely the student’s job leaves us no way to check ourselves for de-motivating pedagogy. If students don’t like sitting in warehouses, watching lecture videos, and clicking away at multiple choice questions, it’s either their own fault, or the fault of Miley Cyrus, social media, or Kids These Days, but not ours. Our theories can’t be impeached. We just need a better class of students.

Related: Rocketship charter schools (which were last seen on this blog here) are abandoning their enormous warehouses where elementary students click away at multiple choice questions:

Teachers — who are at-will employees who can be fired at any time — also criticized Rocketship’s intolerance for dissent, saying it contributed to the disastrous redesign that placed 100 students in a classroom.

“Teachers raised concerns,” said one ex-teacher, “and no discussion was allowed on the subject.”

Those who privately expressed doubt feel vindicated [by the removal of the warehouses] although sad, by the resulting test decline.


Featured Comment

Tom Hoffman:

I was thinking that you can tell a lot about a person’s view of education by exactly when they realize the importance of motivation. From the beginning, in the middle or at the end.

I think one thing that probably strikes teachers about Gates’ quote there is how much it sounds like a cranky old teacher in the break room.

Jay Fogleman:

I find the idea that “today’s youth” are “unmotivated” is bizarre. When teenagers are “hooked” one topic or activity, they are darn near unstoppable.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I was thinking that you can tell a lot about a person’s view of education by exactly *when* they realize the importance of motivation. From the beginning, in the middle or at the end.

    I think one thing that probably strikes teachers about Gates’ quote there is how much it sounds like a cranky old teacher in the break room

  2. Gate’s previous statement is important context:

    “New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated.”

    He is saying some students are (already) motivated, and new technology works for them. Ed tech doesn’t work for many other students, and that educators (and reformers) need to find other methods that work (and motivate) those students.

    He is clearly saying that learning and motivation ARE related, and therefore are within the job description of educators.

  3. He is saying, essentially, that he has a magic elixir that will motivate those who are already motivated. That’s exactly the problem.

  4. Here’s a little true story which happened to me, and I put it into verse:

    Not so long ago I was doing substitute (supply) teaching in a school in Yorkshire ,England, and this happened:

    “I can’t do math” she said to me.
    “Oh yes you can and you will see
    that you can do it on your own”.
    I showed her how the cryptic code
    was just a way of writing.
    “The meaning’s there, give it a go,
    and try to stop the fighting”.
    The tunnel end came into view,
    the light was bright and shining.
    She did another, all alone,
    and smiled with satisfaction.
    Then turned to me and said again
    “I can’t do math”.

    There seems to be more than “unmotivated”. I would call this “alienated”, and it is quite common.

    Find this and more in my site:

  5. One more thing!
    I found this in the CCSS math document:

    Grade 1
    (2) Students develop, discuss, and use efficient, accurate, and generalizable
    methods to add within 100 and subtract multiples of 10.

    Really????? And they do it All On Their Own!!!!!!!

  6. The question of motivation is an interesting one that’s compounded by the disastrous effect of NCLB/RTTT and Common Core that institutionalize pedagogical anti-patterns.

    As a high school Board of Education representative, motivation applies to everyone associated with the school and learning. Students are not the only ones poorly motivated. Teachers, administrators, Guidance Counselors, and the Education Industrial Complex all contribute to a status quo that alienates the learning needs of children from the business as usual of education.

    Students are healthy if unmotivated when trapped inside educational sausage factories. As a computer scientist, a metric that tells you students are unmotivated is nothing more than information about the learning process.

    Schools and teaching staffs whose pedagogical inertia is to ramrod information down the throats of children and adolescents (with government blessing) shouldn’t be at all surprised that they manufacture unmotivated wetware.

    And while Bill Gates has become a union pinata, he’s simply observing the reality of the public school system. I doubt he advocates the Rocket academy experiment in which children are parked at computer screens, left to their own devices. those of us who advocate richer technology integration in schools are not advocating using machines as proxies for teachers. that’s a model that Apple sold in the nineties that failed miserably everywhere.

  7. We just need a better class of students.

    For ed people with that attitude I think there’s some Country Envy involved here. If only the students were like {insert country X here where the students all sit quietly and take notes and have no behavioral issues} then everything would be perfect.

    Nevermind people in those countries aren’t happy either — for example:

    “What the Chinese are very good at doing is achieving short-term goals,” says Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Peking University High School, affiliated with Beijing’s Peking University, known as the “Harvard” of China. “They’re good at copying things, not creating them.”

  8. I imagine the utility of technology is very different depending on whether we are talking about extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. What does research say about this?

    I imagine kids/adults who are extrinsically motivated to complete some assignment would have different learning outcomes than those who are intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic would seem to get you through some of the lower level thinking skills and teachers have a lot of control over this. Intrinsic seems to be necessary to reach higher level thinking skills, and hence is more valuable, but requires perhaps a less direct but more skillful role on the part of the teacher.

  9. Lisa Englard

    July 10, 2014 - 6:10 am -

    Dan is right – it’s all in the hands of the teacher. Just watched this

    posted by and was struck by the JOY of the students while working toward making their discovery. As a K-8 Math Specialist I have seen firsthand how bored, unmotivated students come alive when they can pick their heads up from textbooks and worksheets and step-by-step procedures and work on interesting challenges. I have also seen students working with products like Khan Academy who were bored to tears and just wanted to copy the hints from the last problem to get their “right answer” to the next.

    IMHO, education funding needs to go to two places: first to educate parents and caregivers of pre-school children on how to instill a love of learning – waiting until children begin even Pre-K is too late and the importance of early numeracy is both well documented and easy to accomplish with young, naturally curious and motivated children. Second, to improving teaching. To helping teachers understand math deeply, know how to choose and facilitate meaningful tasks and discourse, and offer helpful feedback that supports learning. Funders are beginning to notice that investing in teaching is the only way to create real institutional change.

  10. I’m retired after 35 years teaching middle school. Dan is right, motivation is the key to learning and understanding. My mantra has always been “Nothing succeeds like success!”
    My students became motivated when they “got it”, i.e, understood what they were doing. When I realized this, it became my goal to find as many ways as I could to help them “get it”. That meant, motivation. In my experience that’s where it began, with me.

  11. I don’t see how “the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students” by itself is blaming the students. If his next sentence was, “so let’s help teachers understand how to foster motivating environments,” I think we’d all be on the same page, right?

    Anyone have a contextualized version of the quotation? Or is the context here just Mr. Gates’ other efforts in education?

  12. I read Gates as saying he has a semi-magic elixir that helps a few. Therefore more work is needed, or another approach…

    You and he may be saying the same thing: de-motivation is exactly the problem. The current school system isn’t motivating students, and apparently ed-tech isn’t doing it either.

  13. It’s a well established fact that teachers need to motivate students to do their assignments, learn the material presented, etc. However, many teachers expect students to motivate themselves; that is, the teacher’s role is to present and the students role is to learn what is presented. Since the main goal of education is to help students become motivated learners; teachers should share what makes math interesting for them and share that in lesson bytes that encourage learning for oneself. I was a good math student, but not an interested in math student. I did what was assigned to get an A grade, but I wasn’t inspired to learn math on my own. That happened only after I started teaching math and realized that the textbook alone won’t help the students appreciate math; it would take sharing my interest in math along with activities that encourage students to be mathematicians in an age appropriate way to support student development on their road to becoming self learners. If the teacher and student are partners in the learning enterprise, students are more likely to develop effective habits of personal learning.

  14. Jay Fogleman

    July 16, 2014 - 1:37 pm -

    Nice collection of quotes, Dan. I find the idea that “today’s youth” are “unmotivated” is bizarre. When teenagers are “hooked” one topic or activity, they are darn near unstoppable.

    Good teachers know this. That is why the veteran teachers that I have worked with first gauge a new teaching ideas or tools by how much they think their students will buy-in and engage.

    Though I am a strong fan of using technology with my students, I learned long ago that technology itself is not a motivator for long, and if students are expected to use technology in the same way day after day (e.g. Rocketship warehousing) , they will balk. In my opinion, the same should prove true for much of the naive “blending” and “flipping” that is in vogue these days. We’ll see.

  15. Jay:

    I find the idea that “today’s youth” are “unmotivated” is bizarre. When teenagers are “hooked” one topic or activity, they are darn near unstoppable.

    Good word. I moved this quote into the main post.

  16. The statement Bill Gates made is clear, simple and true. However, to understand how to “fix” the problem is not. It is important that teachers recognize both and put some thought into what they can do to change those facts for their own students.

    Ask around your own school to see which teachers have a level of success in the area of motivation and pick their brains to see how/if you can use/modify their strategies to experience success yourself.