Motivation and emotion


What makes kids motivated? And how can teachers and senior leaders get all kids working hard? In a five-post series, I’m exploring a few different ways of thinking about these questions. Last week, I borrowed from game theory and behavioural economics to illuminate motivation deficits and short attention spans. This week, I want to look at expectancy, emotions and trust.


Self-fulfilling prophecies


According to ancient Greek legend, Pygamalion invested so much love and care in sculpting a statue of the most beautiful and inspiring woman he could imagine, that the gods fulfilled his hopes and metamorphosed her into reality.

Teachers’ expectations have an impact on pupils that is hard to overstate. In 1968, Rosenthal & Jacobson ran a landmark experiment. When teachers were told that top sets were actually bottom sets, results declined. When teachers were told bottom sets were actually top set, results improved.

This has been replicated ever since. For instance, in a landmark study, researchers told teachers certain students had performed well on a test of intellectual ability, though they had actually been randomly selected. After 8 months, these students significantly outperformed their peers, and the teachers described them as better motivated to succeed than other students.

Researchers have dubbed this the Pygamalion effect. What a teacher thinks of a class impacts on their motivation. People live up to your expectations of them. Student success depends on teachers’ beliefs.


As a student, what makes you look forward to the lesson? It’s not so much what you have next, as who you have next. Emotional interactions between teachers and students are some of ‘the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching’, according to Robert Marzano, as they are ‘typically unconscious’.


Three Charioteers



‘They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’

This chiasmus enlightens us to an enduring truth about influence recognised long ago by the Ancient Greeks.

Rational, forceful persuasion is far from the most powerful form of influence: it comes third out of the three charioteers of ethos, pathos and logos. This philosophy helps us see a teacher’s influence on pupils’ motivation through the eyes of the pupils. There are questions that all pupils implicitly, subconsciously ask of teachers when being taught by them:


Ethos: How much credibility does this teacher have?

  • Who is my teacher? What do they want for me? Do they mean what they say?
  • The subconscious mindset is this: ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying because who you are is shouting too loudly in my ears.’

Pathos: How much does this teacher care?

  • How much do they care about me as a person? How much do they understand and encourage me?
  • The unspoken mindset is this: ‘why should I care about learning from you, if you don’t care about me?

Logos: How much does this teacher help me succeed?

  • What do they have to teach me? Do the challenges they set make me feel successful?
  • The subconscious mindset is: ‘The more I experience success, the more effort I’ll put into succeeding.’

I suggest that the more pupils (implicitly) answer these positively, the more pupils feel motivated to work hard by their teacher. The harder you work on your empathy for them, the harder they’ll work for you.

Given that these questions are always subconsciously asked by pupils, there are some things that teachers should be thinking about:


Ethos: How can I do more to build my pupils’ trust?

  • How can you demonstrate that you want great things for them?
  • How can you encourage their efforts with genuine, sincere praise?
  • How do you model hard work and self-control?

Pathos: How can I do more to understand my pupils?

  • How can you take the time to understand each pupil by asking them about them?
  • How can you affirm each pupil, catching them making the effort?
  • How can you show you see their viewpoint – ‘I know this isn’t your only subject!’

Logos: How can I do more to help every pupil succeed?

  • How can you trust them with rewarding challenges?
  • How can you hold them to ever-higher standards?
  • How can you support them even more patiently?


Science here tells us what we always knew

Trust is the best motivation. It is a better predictor of teacher success than expertise, according to Hattie & Yates (2014). A teacher can know their subject inside out, but if their pupils don’t trust them, they won’t feel very motivated. It works both ways, though: subject expertise builds trust, as pupils love being taught by someone who loves their subject and knows how best to share it.


Catch 22

Image      Image

The difficulty is this: while pupils with the most difficult emotions are precisely the most difficult to deal with, they’re precisely the kids in most need of emotional affection, affirmation and encouragement. All too often I hear difficult conversations between a pupil and a teacher where the teacher is saying, ‘Adam, you’re so bright, but your behaviour isn’t good enough and you’re not working hard enough.’ The message Adam hears is: ‘I’m so bright, I don’t need to behave or work very hard.’ Eventually, interactions turn hostile, and both teachers’ and pupils’ emotional reactions are resentful.

If pupils grappling with the most tangled emotions are the ones most at risk of a downward spiral of complacency, negativity, resentment and hostility, what can we do about this? Levelling the unlevel playing field for those who experience negativity at home by rewarding their intermittent efforts whilst neglecting those pupils who quietly and consistently work hard seems unpalatable: when the worst behaved kids get rewarded most, the school perpetuates disruption and disincentivises effort.

Ultimately, this is a dilemma as much for school leaders as for classroom teachers. Every kid has to find a way to internalise the habit of self-control that will last them a lifetime. A culture of trust is vital, and it starts with modelling: unless we as teachers and the school at large practise what we preach on being motivated and loving learning, how do we hope to inspire enduring motivation in kids? The happier teachers are in their work, the happier pupils are to work hard. The higher the standards of behaviour that we hold kids to, the more they realise that we care about them in the long-term. We shouldn’t permissively indulge them by placating and pleading, then lose patience and snap into anger and annoyance. Instead, we should embody purpose, not power, as guiding adults making tough choices, especially when it gets difficult.

So here are some things school leaders might think about across the school:


Ethos: How can we do more to build our pupils’ trust?

  • How can we make 100% on task every task in every lesson the enforced expectation?
  • How can we follow through relentlessly with consistent consequences?
  • How can we encourage everyday effort with public, sincere positivity in assemblies?

Pathos: How can we do more to make our pupils feel understood?

  • How could we survey pupils on how committed they feel to the school ethos?
  • How could we share the results of the survey visibly and see their viewpoint?
  • How can we know every name, to affirm pupil’s individuality in corridors?

Logos: How can we do more to help every pupil succeed?

  • How can we teach all pupils to understand their emotions and self-control?
  • What teacher training can we run on how to help pupils with self-control?
  • Which roleplay scenarios could we play out on what to do when it gets difficult?


Emotions matter. Those of us excited by the potential of cognitive science to improve instruction should not blind ourselves to pupils’ emotional connection with us. To neglect the affective domain is to miss an important piece of the puzzle of pupil motivation. And the more difficult the emotions the kid brings to the classroom, the greater the emotional impact we have a chance to make on their lives. Tender, loving care can make all the difference.


Hearts matter as much as minds.

Next week, I’ll look into pupil mindsets, and borrow from choice architecture to see how to turn the growth mindset into the default option for all our pupils.

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.

15 Responses to Motivation and emotion

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  2. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Pingback: Motivation and instruction | Pragmatic Education

  4. BB2 says:

    Reblogged this on The BB2 Collaborative.

  5. Tim Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  6. Fascinating post! I really like the set of questions at the end, especially – “How can we encourage everyday effort with public, sincere positivity in assemblies?” The keyword of this question is ‘sincere.’ Great teachers and leaders definitely communicate sincere positivity effectively. I’ve seen quite a few assemblies where the person leading the assembly has gotten sincerity confused with sarcasm. Although the intent is good I think this sometimes has the opposite effect on young people.

    Will be sharing this post with staff.

  7. Children must believe they can master difficult content. Teachers who scaffold and build experiences for students within Vygotsky’s ZPD create the necessary environment – collective efficacy is evident in quality schools.

  8. Interesting stuff. I wonder what form the implementation of the expectation of staff took when they were given false information about the students? What actually caused the effects? The suggestion in the blog is that the attitudes of the staff were seriously informed by the information and this was communicated to the students as ‘expectation’, and the rest of the blog suggests that this was a nuanced aspect of teachers’ interactions with the students?

    I have been thinking carefully about what are the core features of teachers…and have blogged about it here:
    some of the points I give encapsulate the main thrust of the blog above, I think…..

  9. Reblogged this on stpaulslearning.

  10. Reblogged this on HPE&things.

  11. C Moran says:

    Shared this with my Department in a meeting this week. Well received. I want love in schools. Tons of it!

  12. Excellent post – I wish all teachers knew, and believed, and acted on such principles.

  13. Pingback: Motivation 1 – Learning for its own sake | thinklearnteach

  14. Pingback: The Signal & The Noise: The Blogosphere in 2014 | Pragmatic Education

Leave a Reply