Is it time for a ‘science of motivation’?

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Date published 04 June 2020

Is motivation a thing we should be paying attention to in schools? Something we should be striving to understand and working to influence? If so, what might we do about it?

These are the kinds of questions that have kept me awake at night over the last three years, in an attempt to research and write a rigorous book on the science of motivation for schools.

My belief is that if we really want to influence something as complex as human behaviour or learning, we've got to understand what’s going on ‘under the hood’. However, grasping such complex and invisible things is no easy task.

Over the last decade or so we've seen a groundswell in accessible and actionable information about the science of learning. This has shone a light on many of the things we intuitively understood as effective practice, as well as highlighting the need for us to adopt some less intuitive approaches (1). It has brought pupil learning further under our influence and enabled us to act with greater professional judgement.

However, I have always felt that there was a big piece of the puzzle missing in the science of learning literature - it might help us understand how to generate learning when we have pupils' attention, but it fails to reach far into the question of how we get that attention in the first place.


The answer lies partly in ‘motivation’.

Motivation for learning is best thought of as the mechanism by which pupils 'allocate their attention' towards or away from the things we teach. If what pupils learn is what they attend to, then what they attend to is what they are motivated towards. Motivation is fuel for learning.

We know this intuitively. Just think about how much time is spent attempting to motivate pupils in school. Cajoling, encouraging, threatening, persuading! It's such a deeply threaded aspect of daily life that we almost don't realise it's there.

Evidence from research backs up our intuitions. Studies on pupil motivation have repeatedly found that it typically declines during a school career (2). Motivation is a real thing in schools.

One of the questions that we don't have a clear answer to yet is why it's such a big deal. It may be something to do with the abstract nature of the things we teach, or perhaps the level of choice that we're able to offer pupils about what they do in school. In all likelihood, it's probably a combination of things.

Although we might not have clarity yet about why motivation is an issue for school, there are things that the research can tell us about how it works, and what we might do to influence it.

Randal Cremer_two children studying at desk with teacher

Perhaps the most striking insights in this area are around the subconscious and emotional nature of much of our motivation mechanics (3). We are not always aware of the decisions we are making about where to direct our attention and effort. And many of those decisions are influenced by deeply wired emotional circuitry. This is not necessarily a bad thing – emotion creates the space for us to think rationally – but perhaps it is one further reason why our profession does not yet have a common vocabulary or consensus around effective practices for motivation in school.

Another may be simply because the evidence base around motivation is relatively incoherent and shaky. It is strewn across multiple fields, hampered by overlapping theories (4), and plagued by failures of replication.

However, when we look across fields, some clarity and solidity does begin to emerge.

We see that pupils (and humans more generally) are motivated towards things they value, towards things they perceive they are more likely to attain, and towards things that won't cost them a great deal of investment. These levers are the basis of classical economics.

However, we are a heavily social species, relying heavily on co-operation to maximise our chances of survival and success. And so, in addition to the above, we are also motivated towards things that others tend to do, especially those we identify with, and where we feel we have some control over our choice.

These social forces add nuance to classical theories of human motivation, and together, have led to the flourishing field of behavioural economics (5) (however, I would argue that many of the ideas underpinning behavioural economics have existed previously in frameworks such as Value-Expectancy-Cost Theory (6) and Self-Determination Theory (7)).

"We see that pupils are motivated towards things they value, towards things they perceive they are more likely to attain, and towards things that won't cost them a great deal of investment"

Whilst fields and frameworks are emerging to help society tackle the challenge of motivation (the EAST framework is a great example), the problem is that their assumptions and implications are not always appropriate for the context of school.

The special nature of the things we teach mean that their value is often ambiguous and delayed. And the zero-sum economics of labour in school means that the more pupils are provided with personalised pathways, the less teachers can invest in each one.

In short, we probably need a science of motivation for learning – one that meets the specific needs of schools. Only when we have this, alongside a rigorous science of learning, will we be able to truly help pupils make the most of their time, and reverse the trajectory of declining motivation in school.

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  1. Mccrea (2019) Learning: what is it, and how might we catalyse it?
  2. Mansfield (2010) Motivation goals during adolescence: a cross-sectional perspective
  3. Boekaerts (2010) The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning
  4. Cook & Artino (2016) Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories
  5. Samson (2014) An Introduction to behavioural economics
  6. Barron & Hulleman (2015) Expectancy-value-cost model of motivation
  7. Niemiec & Ryan (2009) Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice

Peps Mcrea
Peps Mccrea
Dean, Learning Design

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