Motivating the Unmotivated

Having spent many years teaching all levels of students, the most important task is to discover what a person values and then build upon it. For example, suppose you have a student who shows no apparent interest in what you think is important. What do you do? You need to take your time and observe what he or she does when there is no assigned task. This may take time even as long as three to six weeks, but the time and patience you bring to the task is well worth it to the unmotivated student. Motivation comes in basically two forms, intrinsic or internal and extrinsic or external. Many parents focus their efforts on extrinsic motivation such as rewards for doing a task, by paying money for getting good grades. In real life this rarely works when there is no one around to reward you.

My primary technique in working with young students, say at the fifth grade level was to choose an unmotivated student to run an errand for me. I never believed in keeping students in at recess just because they were struggling at reading or math. Another technique that worked wonders was to have every student convene the class for a week. They talked about whatever subject that concerned them. This did more for the so called unmotivated student than anything I ever tried. So many times the only student who gets a chance to run and errand or lead a class discussion are the kids who are already stars. On one occasion one of the members of a class was upset because the class never agreed on anything. I rarely intervened, but on this occasion I told them that I could decide everything for them and tell them what to do. They agreed as a class that they preferred to discuss their problems themselves.

Intrinsic motivation is what makes the difference between success and failure in life. It does not have to lead to wealth, but it can. It does not have to lead to an executive position. A person in whatever occupation has to have a sense of pride in their work and to value what they do in life. Intrinsic motivation comes from what a person values. Extrinsic motivation is a device to get a person to do something whether they value it or not. To discover what a person values, that is their intrinsic motivation, spend time observing what a person, either a child or adult does with their own free time. Rewards for improving intrinsic motivation should be subtle, and not closely related to the desired outcome. After all, what you desire in a person is for that person to become what we call self actualized, that is able to function without depending upon external motivation.

Many corporations follow a line and staff style of leadership which is modeled after a military style of organization. A basketball player made a suggestion to the coach George Raveling at USC. George responded, “Son, I will tell you what my mother told me. When I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what to say!” Unfortunately, the line and staff form of organization does not work in all corporations or in many kinds of institutions where cooperation and personal responsibility are needed or valued.

I had a question from a viewer about how to acquire the motivation to exercise on a regular basis. This question involves intrinsic motivation. Setting a schedule on paper and checking off the times one exercises is one way of developing the required motivation. Also, varying the routine helps. For example, I have several exercise machines I can use to vary the routine. Whatever you do, do not stress your body and injure yourself. Gradually increase the time of your routine, but if you are sore, take a break. Both women and men need to do strength and aerobic exercise. Some people jog to condition their bodies, but jogging over a long period of time leads to worn out hip and knee joints.


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  2. I really love what you’re saying and it makes total sense that ‘intrinsic’ motivation is the only long term mechanism that really, really works. ‘Extrinsic’ motivation is all about getting people to do things that they don’t value !! How mad is that? The good thing about what we do at ‘The Big Picture’ is we tap into what it is they truly value and get them to be focused on that. I think you’ll like our BLOG this week on ‘Student Dilemma’ , on Thanks Keith

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