The science of motivation - Glasshouse Christian College

The science of motivation

  • October 24, 2019

The science of motivation

Sometimes events like last week’s Volunteer High Tea inspire what I write about in my blog but other times something will come across my desk and it seems like the ideal article at the right time. 

As Term 4 is now well and truly in motion, many of our students find it difficult to keep motivated. Below is a summary of an interesting article I came across by Grace Tatter of Harvard University entitled “Useable Knowledge”. I appreciated the way that Ms Tatter takes the mystery out of motivation and puts the science back in. The below is a summary of some of her most salient points. 


If students aren’t motivated, learning won’t happen. What’s going on in children’s brains when they’re motivated, and what’s holding them back? There are two types of motivation: approach motivation, which directs us toward a reward, and avoidance motivation, which helps us to avoid damage. Ideally, they balance each other out. Caring adults can help students develop the motivation systems that will serve them well, long into adulthood.


Encourage curiosity and exploration. Beyond their basic needs, children are motivated by exploration, play, mastery and success. Parents can reinforce these motivations rather than being overly fearful that children will get hurt — fears that can rub off. Caring adults whom children can trust can help them figure out what to actually be afraid of and avoid.

Don’t rely on incentives. The goal is to help kids develop their own inner fire to learn. Children can stop engaging in activities once they’ve been given a tangible reward for it. Systems focused solely on external rewards and punishments are unlikely to achieve sustained, productive motivation. Positive feedback is more likely to support healthy motivation.

Remind children that success is possible. We’re unlikely to be motivated to do anything if we think it’s impossible. A growth mindset — the belief that we can change and improve through practice— enables children to get motivated.  

Social interaction. From babies to adolescents, social interaction is a key to motivation, releasing natural opioids that activate the brain’s reward system. In our digital world, apps and screens can be supplements for learning, but in-person interactions remain essential.

Remember we all have different intrinsic motivators. A child intrinsically motivated to play sports might respond well to constructive criticism from a coach but another student might respond more to encouragement and get discouraged by criticism. These different motivation systems may be due to children’s genes and their life experiences, and they might require different approaches to motivate them.

Mike Curtis, Principal

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