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  • Welcome to Collège Champittet

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How can we REALLY motivate students in the 21st Century?

  • How can we REALLY motivate students in the 21st Century?

The education system was established in a time of scarcity. Its primary function was to prepare young students to become a component part in the industrial system. What was important back then was the transfer of basic skills and knowledge from one person (the teacher) to another (the student) in an environment not far removed from an industrial batch- processing model. The Teacher had the material and knowledge, and the students only had access to it through them – the reliance on this top down structure mirrored working life. Students were grouped by age, seemingly with no educational rationale, placed in large classes and understood that their progress would bring with it a reward – a position in the industrial system that would reap a greater financial reward.


The question I find myself asking, as we are now well into the 21st Century, is “How have our educational strategies and systems adapted to the changes in society and the move towards post-industrialism?” Do we still have the same batch-processing systems, the same rationales and work preparation as we did back then?


One aspect that fascinates me is how we motivate our students in a meaningful way. In an age of scarcity and the assumed reliance on the teacher to access the scarce resource of knowledge, the promise of financial and material reward was an impressive carrot. To be dragged out of poverty was a reward that meant youngsters would focus on that goal above the actual quality of their education and would even accept some strict punishments. To complete the analogy, in many cases this was an actual stick to go alongside the carrot. But how does this model apply in a post-industrial age of abundance? Of course, we still have poverty in our societies, but this is more relative than the absolute poverty of bygone ages. The abundance is also beyond financial, via the Internet and globalisation of communication it extends to knowledge, information and even ambition. What carrots do we have for these students? We realise the stick no longer works on its own, if at all.


In his book “Drive”, Dan Pink (2009) explores many of the scientific approaches that underpin motivation. He analyses the 2 main personality types he calls Type I (intrinsically motivated) and Type X (extrinsically motivated) and bases his arguments strongly on the work of Douglas MacGregor (1960) and his analysis of the human condition in the workplace.


“Type I’s almost always outperform Type X’s in the long run. Intrinsically-motivated people usually achieve more than their reward-seeking counterparts. Alas, that’s not always true in the short term. An intense focus on extrinsic rewards can deliver fast results. The trouble is, this approach is difficult to sustain.” (Pink, 2009, pgs. 76-77)


He settles upon three key elements – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose that feed the Type I personality. With autonomy, he advocates for a “renaissance of self-direction” and analyses the emergence of ROWEs – results only work (school) environments – initially in the industrial sector. Interestingly for this study, greatest success was found where financial and material compensation was not tied to any achievement goals. In education, especially as the tasks involved were cognitive, this was found to be more marked.


In “Employment grade and coronary heart disease in British civil servants” (Marmot et al, 1978), part of the famous Whitehall Studies, a deeper moral imperative for autonomy in the work and study place emerges as there is a proven link with mental and physical health. Numerous mortality and blood pressure variables are analysed but independent of these is the grade at which the employee worked and the resultant autonomy. Thus proving that allowing more autonomy can in fact improve health.


Simon Sinek (2014) develops the analysis in his book, “Leaders Eat Last”.


“Researchers found that workers’ stress was not caused by a higher degree of responsibility and pressure usually associated with rank. It is not the demands of the job that cause the most stress, but the degree of control workers feel they have throughout their day.” (Sinek, 2014, pg. 35)


We spend a long time worrying about the workload our students are under and how it is impacting on them when maybe allowing for greater autonomy would bring not only better health outcomes but better motivation and educational outcomes also. The way we ask them to work is as important as the actual work itself. We should be loosening the reins and allowing more autonomy over task choice, methods of working and presentation and the tools and technology they want to use. Here, diplomas such as the IB are taking a lead in prescribing student-centred pedagogies.


The foundation of Mastery (Pink, 2009) is the progression from compliance to engagement. In the case of this study to move from a top down, tick box, grade orientated, model of teaching. The research clearly reveals a dissatisfaction with this model – especially when learning is solely rooted in teacher or system-assigned criteria for progress. Instead, Mastery is a change towards a route for engagement and self-actualisation that allows students to improve in a more sustainable way, often by making them integral to creating the system itself.


Finally, Pink (2009) explains how Purpose is the third element for motivation. This provides the context for autonomy and mastery. Although it may not be regarded strictly as a motivating factor, the wider purpose of what is being achieved is significant. The attainment motive is powerful in schools, but more recently schools that have their mission and values as core purpose have a coherence and energy that is driving performance. Conceptual based teaching is a key element in moving students away from simply acquiring facts and knowledge, but into a more adaptable view of understanding wider concepts that can become the structure for developing life-long learners (Erickson, 2014)


So, in conclusion, to develop real intrinsic motivation in our students in the age of abundance we must establish clear values and concepts to establish purpose, allow students to engage in constructing the vision of progress to instil feelings of mastery and ultimately let go of many of the processes we have always used and give to them the autonomy to develop their own pathways. Diploma programmes such as the IB take this challenge head on and not only look at subject content, but pedagogy, holistic values and even elements of service as part of the education of the whole student.



Keith Sykes

Dean of International Baccalaureate











Erickson, L., (2014), Transitioning to Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction: How to Bring Content and Process Together (Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Series), Corwin (SAGE Publications), Thousand Oaks, CA.

McGregor, D., (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. McGraw-Hill, New York.


Marmot, M G, et al. (1978), Employment Grade and Coronary Heart Disease in British Civil Servants. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 244–249.


Pink, D., (2009), Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, New York.


Sinek, S., (2014), Leaders Eat Last. Portfolio/ Penguin, New York.