Motivation and instruction


Why do some kids arrive at secondary school already motivated to work hard, while some arrive demotivated to exert much effort at all in lessons?

Picture two students you’ve taught: one who works incredibly hard, and one who seems incredibly lacklustre and avoids making effort. What explains this difference? How does motivation work?

In a series of five blogposts, I plan to explore what we as teachers can do about motivation, self-control and willpower in school. There’ll be stories of elephants, chimps and bees; mindsets, biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. The heroes of the story will be Carol Dwek, Daniel Kahnemann, Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, Jonathan Haidt, Kelly McGonigal and the Heath brothers. Going beyond the cognitive psychology I’ve been exploring, this is a journey into our social, intuitive minds.

In the first post of the series, I want to see how two approaches from the field of economics might apply to the question of motivation: game theory and behavioural economics.

But to start with, why is motivation so important? I think Hattie and Yates capture it well:

  • Learning requires effort, attention, concentration, discipline and motivation
  • Material is subject to rapid and substantial forgetting
  • Concentration spans are short, and attention is easily disrupted
  • Concentration and self-control place great stress on mental resources, which are subject to overload
  • Self-control strategies are insecurely learned, relatively unpracticed and easily depleted

The Willingham hypothesis is that what drives motivation is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’.

For instance, when you are given a Sudoku puzzle, crossword or mental arithmetic problem that is too hard, like working out 23 x 79 in your head, how much do you feel like attempting it? How about a question that is far too easy, like 5 + 5? We are motivated by problems that are both challenging and attainable – otherwise we get frustrated, bored or complacent. Teaching should stretch but not overwhelm students.

But that’s certainly not all there is to motivation. What about pupils’ perceptions and expectations? That’s where game theory comes in.

Effort Exertion & Game Theory: Rational Expectations


In one of the most thought-provoking blogposts I’ve read all year, Trying is Risky, David Thomas used game theory to model a pupil’s choice in a lesson: whether to exert effort or not.


 In any lesson, students can make one of two choices: to exert effort, or not to exert effort. The lesson can be a good lesson, or it can be a bad lesson. A good lesson is one where a student will learn if they exert effort; a bad lesson is one where they may not. For each pair of inputs there are two outcomes: the student’s level of academic and social success.

‘So how does a student make their choice? It depends on how likely they think the lesson is to be a good one. Call the student’s perceived probability of the lesson being good, p. If p is high, then they’re more likely to choose to exert effort, as it’s more likely they will get the best available outcome. If they perceive the probability of it being a good lesson to be 50%, most students would, quite rationally, opt to not exert effort. They are risk averse: they’d much rather choose a strategy that guaranteed them an okay outcome than a strategy that gambles between a good outcome and a bad one.

‘The goal for teachers is making p as high as possible so that all students exert effort in lessons. This is affected by prior experience of the subject, self-esteem and school culture, not just teacher quality. Students believe they’ll do badly in Maths because they’ve always done so before. Raising p is about breaking this damaging chain of reasoning, and the only way to go is by forcing them to experience success. This means that you plan your lesson to make sure that if they exert any effort at all, they will have some measurable success.’


Motivating demotivated pupils is about ensuring they experience success in your subject. What I like about this model is that it’s subject-specific, and it locates the solution in the teacher’s sphere of control, whilst acknowledging other factors outside the teacher’s influence.

I’d like to unpack those external factors in the next few blogposts, whilst also challenging game theory’s assumptions.

The greatest challenge to economic modelling is that of the rationalist delusion. People – especially pupils – don’t always act rationally. There’s little rationale for sabotaging their own learning in the way some seem to, and it doesn’t always result in social success.

Behavioural economics offers another way of looking at motivation. Daniel Kahnemann is the chief exponent of this approach, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. In this view, our minds are made up of two agents: fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic system 1, and slow, deliberate, effortful, and reflective system 2.


Effort & Attention: the Lazy Controller

‘System 2 requires attention, is disrupted when attention is distracted, and requires continuous effort exertion. Conflict is common in our lives between an automatic reaction and our intention to control it. System 2 is in charge of self-control. System 2 prevents us from reacting foolishly to insults, for instance. A defining feature is that its operations are effortful, and one of its characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is necessary or comfortable. We conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort. The effortful thinking that we demand of pupils requires discipline and self-control.’


‘The law of least effort is operating here. He’s thinking as little as possible.’

‘Both cognitive work and self-control are forms of mental work. Several studies have shown people simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task are more likely to yield to temptation. People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices and make superficial judgments in social situations. Cognitive load is not the only cause of weakened self-control – a sleepless night is too. Self-control requires attention and effort.’

Ego Depletion

‘Effort of will or self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up. This phenomenon has been names ego depletion. Ego-depleted people succumb more quickly to the urge to quit. Later, they give up earlier than normal when faced with a difficult cognitive task. The results of depletion can be reacting aggressively to provocation; persisting less; performing poorly in cognitive tasks.’


‘Activities that impose high demands on system 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting, unpleasant and involves a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another.’ 

Incentives and training

‘In several experiments, people were able to resist the effects of ego depletion given a strong enough incentive. University of Oregon researchers explored attempts to raise intelligence by improving control of attention. Training attention not only improved self-control, scores on non-verbal tests of intelligence also improved and the improvement was sustained for several months.’

We demand extraordinary efforts of cognitive work and self-control from pupils every day. Some pupils have weaker system 2 than others. The paradox is that our pupils with weak self-control need it most but find it hardest. David Thomas is right to say that self-control depletes, habit rescues.The only way out of the paradox is this: we must strengthen their system two by building the habit ofself-control to get it increasingly on autopilot. Where might we, as teachers and school leaders, start?




School leaders

  • Reinforce effort exertion and set the bar at 100% of pupils on task every task
  • Train pupils’ control of attention and teach self-control explicitly
  • Ensure social incentives reinforce system 2 effort exertion and self-control
  • Create a summer school with practice routines to automate the habit of self-discipline


On exploring the rationalist delusion, Jonathan Haidt said: ‘It just seemed too cerebral. There was hardly any mention of emotion’. Next week, I’ll look into the emotional side of motivation, and how trust, empathy and relationships affect how hard pupils work.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Motivation and instruction

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. Steve Horsch says:

    Nicely done. Interesting insight on risk and effort.

  3. Pingback: Motivation and instruction | Pragmatic Education | Learning Curve

  4. Tom Berend says:

    Sometimes cash works. I was attempting intensive 2-hour/day tutoring for a grade-7 inner-city non-reader, and my main obstacle was that he simply didn’t show up 3 days out of 5. So I made it a ‘job’ – I called his mom (on welfare) and offered them $20/day – half for him. His attendance immediately went to 100%, and shortly he asked if we could also tutor on Saturday.

    The literature suggests that blunt extrinsic motivation doesn’t work very well. But it’s not so simple. He felt that he ‘owed’ me some effort for the cash, and also that payment validated his cooperation; both of which are intrinsic motivators. And yes, lavish praise and tangible success were important.

    Four months later he was reading close to grade level. My out-of-pocket was about $2,000. Best investment I ever made.

  5. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Great overview!

  6. Reblogged this on peter singhatey and commented:
    Hope this gives many more to opportunity to read this very interesting and very informative article. Many thanks!

  7. Reblogged this on Dr Mike Beverley and commented:
    Interesting effortless and effortful learning

  8. Beccy says:

    I have not yet read the book ‘scarcity’ but reviews I have read would suggest that challenges such as caring for others, poverty, dealing with abusive situations affect ego depletion. In that overcoming these difficulties understandably leaves little resources to tackle another challenge. I have certainly often come across this for myself and also feel it is a big issue where I work.

    For students who are exceptionally verbally high attainers but have barriers such as dyslexia to overcome the balance is equally challenging. Ego depletion seems to come in to play but making the work unchallenging enough for them to cope with the literacy content can leave such students frustrated as the work is not intellectually challenging enough for them. Once again this has been an issue for some of my friends (a generation who were forced to write right handed when left handed for example) and some of my students (in this case I think intensive one to one tutoring and access to a tablet would be good – these have helped move my youngest son along too) but the money is just not there in our school or many others. (I was lucky that my son eventually felt self motivated enough to accept my help and the school funded an ipad loan which has helped him enormously so I am thinking I will get him one for college). I think many teachers would be happy to do extra sessions for this after school, but by the time it gets to this stage many of these types of students would not be motivated to come to such a session. They need to be caught early.

  9. Rory says:

    “Why do some kids arrive at secondary school already motivated to work hard, while some arrive demotivated to exert much effort at all in lessons?” The answer is always the same: too many kids haven’t succeeded with reading, math and study-skills. Why haven’t they succeeded? Because no teacher or parent ever taught them how. This is understandable because there are so few places you can go to learn these skills. I’m sorry, our Ed. Schools are simply an extension of our four-year college programs – and you know how lame most of those are.

    Since there are no legitimate “systems” interested in flooding kids with reading, math an study-skills – guess we’ll have to do it ourselves. Step one – give them the answers “first.’ Then ask the question.

  10. Reblogged this on HPE&things and commented:
    Motivation why we do or don’t have it!

  11. LaRachelle says:

    It seems like your argument for rhetoric as a tool for increased power for the student could be useful here too.
    I disagree however that exerting self-control leads to ego-depletion; it is actually the other way round. The less self-control we can exercise, the more our ego runs amock with different unfocused and unproductive ideas that centre on ourselves. Turning students outward from their often hormone-induced self-absorption is part of the challenge. Ergo, moving them away from ‘ego’

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  17. rgslearning says:

    Reblogged this on RGS Learning and commented:
    Joe Kirby on Motivation

  18. Caleb says:

    Lessons seemingly require an obligatory amount of effort from each individual student to achieve the desired goals and objectives that the lessons sets forth. Though it is the responsibility of the educator to present an intriguing lessons, if a student lacks motivation and desire to better their knowledge and cognitive skill the success of the lesson will in be futile.

  19. suzrn says:

    I have always been a supporter of Bandura’s social cognitive theory and I see pieces of it in your post. How do you feel his theory fits in with yours? Excellent post – thanks for the great material you have provided.

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