If This is an Effective “Motivation Strategy”, I’ll Settle for Unmotivated Kids

A lot is being said these days about motivating students.  In a wholly ironic twist, nearly everyone who’s got something to say about motivating students also concedes the point that strategies for teaching and strategies for motivation only work if the students are…yup, you guessed it – willing (AKA: motivated) to be taught.  That’s a pretty damning Catch-22, if you ask me.  Nonetheless, folks in academia and even homeschooling parents themselves, continue to ask the question, “What can I/we do to help motivate these kids?”

There is no shortage of opinions on the topic.  Founder and President of On Giants’ Shoulders, Chelsea Dale, penned hers in an article titled, “Motivating the Unmotivated,” writing that “An effective student motivation strategy must include all of (the following) five components: focus, time commitment, reinforcement through repetition, effective motivation, and fun for the students.”  While I don’t doubt that she cares about children and her intentions are sincere, her further explanations of each of the five components left me cold.

If this is what defines an effective “motivation strategy” for kids, I’ll settle for unmotivated children.  And I don’t say that lightly.  I don’t suffer laziness well.  But let’s look at some of what Ms. Dale had to say (centered, and in bold italics) and see why I think I’d prefer unmotivated kids.


“Teachers must be ready, willing, and able to focus primarily on motivation.”

As a taxpayer, I’m appalled by this notion.  Teachers are not cheerleaders.  We’re not paying teachers to “…focus primarily on motivation.”  We’re supposed to be paying them to teach.  If their attention is “…focus(ed) primarily on (motivating unmotivated students),” then when and how are they getting to phonics, or multiplication facts, or world history?  

I’m also wondering what on earth is happening, while the teachers are dealing with the students who are still unmotivated despite efforts to motivate them, to the motivation levels of the kids who actually want to learn what the teachers are supposed to be teaching?  How long are those kids supposed to cling to their interest when nothing is happening?

As a life learner, I cringe at this.  It’s not my job to focus on motivating my kids.  Kids don’t need to be motivated by an adult to do something that is personally meaningful for them.  It’s my job to get out of their way so that I don’t create the very situation that I’m trying to avoid!

Time Commitment

“And considering the amount of time wasted on disciplining unruly, unmotivated students, a 15-minute-per-week investment in motivation will result in a net increase in actual teaching time.”

E-gads!  How about the amount of our kids’ time that we waste, demanding that they do what we say to do, that they learn what we say to learn when we say to learn it with the resources that we give them, regardless of how they feel about it?  Our kids aren’t products to be assembled bit by bit, adding 30 minutes of spelling here, 50 minutes of algebra there, and 15 minutes of motivation back here.    

Furthermore, you can’t invest in motivation on someone else’s behalf.  What an absurd notion.  A net increase in actual learning time would be gained by simply allowing students to break out of a one-size-fits-all box of canned curriculum and explore their own interests and questions.

Reinforcement Through Repetition

“…a motivation strategy for elementary and middle school students requires repetitive reinforcement.”

So, you have unmotivated students who aren’t interested in what you’re teaching, and you think the way to motivate them is to…repeat the same stuff that isn’t engaging them to begin with?  Am I the only one seeing the definition of insanity right there?

Again, we’re asking the wrong question here.  Kids don’t have a problem with motivation; they have a problem with boredom – and I don’t blame them!  How many adults would willingly spend an entire day (day in and day out) having someone else try to teach them something they aren’t the slightest bit interested in learning?  How many adults would be okay being labeled as lazy or unmotivated for not mustering up the proper amount of enthusiasm for someone else’s agenda?

Effective Motivators

“Any successful motivation strategy requires an effective motivator.”

Yes, yes it does…especially if you look at motivation as something you need to do to another human being.  If, however, you view motivation as something that stems from within, it ceases to be a “strategy” to employ against someone else.

“If teachers and administrators are fortunate to have respectful, pliable students, a specific motivation strategy is unnecessary.”

My initial response to this was split.  First was more of a pensive, “Indeed.”  Yeah, that’s a no-brainer.  If you’ve got compliant kids, then you don’t have to motivate them.  

The second was something akin to revulsion.  “Pliable students”?  What kind of teachers want “pliable students”?  I don’t want any of my kids being “pliable”.  

“However, in chronically unruly classrooms and/or those with unmotivated, underperforming students, the wishes of adult authority figures are disregarded.  Unfortunately this often rises to the level of disrespect and defiance.”

Again, as a taxpayer and discussing public schools, I want to know why a teacher who has a “chronically unruly classroom” would be allowed to keep his or her job.  

As a homeschooler and someone who thinks the whole idea of attempting to force an education on someone is a little wonky to begin with, I’m wondering why the folks in the trenches with “unmotivated, underperforming students” (and that includes homeschooling parents and kids) aren’t examining the blatant hypocrisy in a statement like that one.  It seems awfully disrespectful to me for one person to unapologetically waste the time of another, and that is what is happening to our children far too often.  It seems awfully disrespectful to me for one person to insist that another learn something for which they have no need or desire to learn right then.

Fun for the Students

“The not-so-secret ingredient for any motivational activity is making sure that it’s fun.”

Hmmmn…so we’re keeping with the idea that motivation is something that one person does to another?  You don’t need a “motivational activity” (which sounds, in this context, suspiciously like some form of bribery, manipulation, or coercion) if you aren’t trying to control someone else.  A student will be highly motivated to learn anything that is fun, meaningful, or useful to them without a single component of an authority figure’s motivation strategy in place.

The problem with asking what we can do to motivate the unmotivated is that it misses the mark completely. The wrong question is being asked.  Rather than continuing to beat that dead horse, perhaps an innovative academic or a burned out homeschooler should ask, “Why are these kids unmotivated to begin with?”  The answers will be insightful and humbling, and will require a massive shift in ideology in order to address what we can then do to create a learning environment for children that promotes self-motivation.

About the Author Becky

I’m a married, homeschooling mama of three who is passionate about self-directed learning.

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