Human Motivation 2: Purpose and Choice

This is the second of four blog posts to explore human motivation, and how we can enhance learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. These posts are edited extracts from our forthcoming book: Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

In this post we discuss the personal nature of human motivation and introduce a framework of factors to enhance learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. We focus upon the first two key factors, namely purpose and choice, as keys to unlocking intrinsic motivation and engagement.

Motivation is personal

One of the biggest challenges in coming to understand human motivation is the highly personal nature of it. Something you may find compelling others find tedious. The factors that enhance my motivation can be very different to those that enhance yours. Factors that demotivate me may have little effect on you.

The rewards and threats of punishments needed to stimulate action vary enormously from person to person too. Factors that drive deep engagement also vary.

How can teachers be expected to motivate their students? How can principals be expected to motivate their teachers? How can anyone be expected to motivate another individual? In short, they cannot!

How can anyone be expected to motivate another individual? In short, they cannot!
We simply cannot motivate others.

Despite this fact, most of us have been taught that a key aspect of a leader’s job is to motivate others. This is particularly true of teachers, which is unfortunate. While teachers can certainly inspire, support, encourage and mediate the learning of their students, they cannot motivate them. However, the systems and processes they put into place in their classrooms can de-motivate them.

High degrees of engagement and intrinsic motivation come from the drive within each individual. Yet, we continue to build extrinsic motivation factors, such as rewards and punishments, into the structure and operation of our systems. In doing this, we damage intrinsic motivation.

If it is not possible to compel others to become engaged, how can we maximise engagement and intrinsic motivation?

Teachers manage systems of learning. In order to maximise motivation and learning, teachers need to identify and remove the de-motivators: the barriers to learning, and create a systemic environment that maximises the factors that unlock intrinsic motivation and enhance learning.

Over the past decade we have drawn upon a wide range of research as well as our own experience to develop the following framework of factors that can enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement. This model draws on the work of Deming, Kohn, Herzberg, Langford, Scholtes, Senge, Pink and Hattie.

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement



Advancing my interests and passions. Making a positive difference to me or others


Pertinent to me, my situation and my future


Accepting what is to be accomplished and uncovering the potential of what could be achieved



Committing to the task. Experiencing a sense of authority. Being relied upon by others


Selecting methods and resources, defining quality standards and determining time-lines and milestones


Exploring and expressing thoughts, skills, imagination and individuality



Finding the task interesting, compelling and achievable


Monitoring one’s own progress and performance. Celebrating learning and success


Trying things, making mistakes, developing new skills and finding different ways of thinking



Enjoying interdependence, working towards shared goals and experiencing authentic teamwork


Giving and receiving constructive feedback and encouragement


Recognising skills and abilities in one’s self and others. Sharing, helping, learning together. Being free of fear

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery, Engagement
Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement

The factors identified in this framework are generic in that they apply, to varying degrees, to everyone. It is a framework of common causes. By building these into our systems we tap into intrinsic motivation.

Let’s look more closely at the first two groups these factors…

Create purpose

Of the four groups of factors that can enhance motivation and engagement, purpose is perhaps the most personal. Purpose relates to the nature of the task. Things that abound with meaning, relevance and possibility for one person can be totally devoid of purpose for another.


Activities that tap into an individual’s interests and passions result in greater drive than activities that do not. Most people are driven to do things that will make a positive difference for themselves and in their own lives. Most individuals also derive meaning from making a positive difference for others in the world. Finding a sense of meaning in a task or activity can be a strong motivator. Meaning inspires passion and commitment. Meaning unlocks intrinsic motivation.


To be driven to action, that action needs to bear some relation to the life of the individual. Actions that accord to the circumstance and needs of the individual provide greater intrinsic motivation than those that do not. Lack of relevance is a de-motivator; ask any teenager (or teacher participant of a professional learning workshop!).


Possibility relates to the extent to which an individual uncovers and ‘buys into’ a vision of what might be possible. As a first step, the potential of an activity must be clearly understood and accepted. What could be the benefit of this? What would it look like to do this superbly well? Failing to see the possibility in a task is usually de-motivating.

Collectively, these three factors – meaning, relevance and possibility – help the individual understand: what is to be done, why it should be done, how it relates to the individual and the individual’s future, what can be achieved, and how pursuit of the activity matters in the larger scheme of things.

Provide choice

These factors relate to the extent to which the individual has a sense of control over tasks. These factors consider the degree to which the task offers the opportunity to practice responsibility, enhance skills of self-management, and exercise creativity and self-expression. Not feeling in control leads to anxiety. Anxiety is a major barrier to intrinsic motivation and learning.


Being given the authority to get the job done and doing what it takes to do the job well is what responsibility is all about.

Following someone else’s directive is very different to accepting responsibility. Some managers complain that their employees don’t accept responsibility. Parents and teachers make the same complaint about children. Some principals complain about teachers. What they are frequently saying is that people will not do as they are told, rather than people are failing to exercise responsibility!

Being afforded the authority to engage with a whole task, not just bit of it, and developing a sense of being needed by others can enhance motivation. Not being given the authority necessary to take responsibility is de-motivating.


While responsibility is about accepting one’s role in the completion of an activity, autonomy is about exercising choice regarding the activity itself and in how the activity is handled.

To act autonomously is to make choices about the activities, methods and resources to be used, which include establishing a schedule and then self-managing that schedule. To act autonomously is also to participate in defining the quality standards – the criteria by which the quality of the activity will be measured.

With autonomy comes a sense of control. Exercising autonomy can unlock intrinsic motivation.


Creativity goes beyond taking on a task and choosing how it will be managed, into the realm of individual expression. The freedom to explore one’s own imagination, thoughts and skills in applying them to a task can be highly motivating.

Mastery and Belonging

In subsequent blog posts, we will expand upon the remaining two groups of factors – Mastery and Belonging – and contrast the use of reward in classrooms with identifying and removing barriers to learning and  improvement.

Until then, we encourage you to discuss these ideas with your colleagues. If you are a teacher, you may wish to explore these concepts with your students. If you are really game, you may like to ask your students (and colleagues) the degree to which these factors are evident within your systems of learning. Furthermore, you could seek suggestions regarding improvements to the systems of learning to enhance motivation and engagement.

If you have observations, suggestions or questions, please share your comments!


2 Ways Students Can Lead School Improvement

Students have a great deal to contribute to school improvement.

We made this point in a previous blog post What the school improvement Gurus are not yet talking about.

Many schools are currently promoting ‘student voice’ – a feature of many school improvement models.  However our experience shows that this rarely extends beyond a Student Representative Council where a few selected students have the responsibility to collect periodic feedback from students or engage with school fundraising activities. This is a limited view of student voice.

Quality Learning theory emphasises the importance of working together to improve and involving the ‘worker at the front line’ in improving the system. In schools this is the student.

Student contribution begins in the classroom

Students’ potential to lead improvement begins in the classroom. Every student can reflect upon what helps him or her to learn and what hinders learning. Students, with their teacher, can use Quality Learning tools to share, explore and prioritise these driving and restraining forces. A Parking Lot is a good way to collect this data on an ongoing basis. (See our previous blog post Put up a Parking Lot!)

John Hattie in his book Visible Learning (2009) discusses feedback as in the ‘top 10’ greatest influences on student learning. He emphasises the importance of of student-to-teacher feedback (not just the more commonplace teacher-to-student kind).

Based on considered student feedback, teachers and students can jointly design and trial changes to classroom processes, with the aim of improving learning. The class can evaluate the effectiveness of these changes over time. The changes can then be:

  • adopted as ongoing practice;
  • adapted, modified and trialed again;
  • or abandoned.

In this way, students engage in the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle of learning and improvement.

PDSA Cycle
Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle, as described by Dr W Edwards Deming

Engaging students in classroom improvement like this has four key benefits.

  1. Teachers can learn a great deal from listening to their students discuss what helps and hinders their learning. This also develops student metacognition and builds capacity in ‘learning how to learn’.
  2. Engaging students in the PDSA cycle of improvement teaches them a practical ‘how to’ approach to improvement, which they can then apply to their own opportunities for improvement. These lessons have practical application beyond schooling.
  3. Engaging students in improving their own situation builds student ownership of the process and outcomes. The teacher has the active support of students in developing, trialling and evaluating a jointly developed theory for improvement.
  4. If the trial is successful, student learning will improve. If it is not successful, students have benefited from experience with the PDSA cycle. An alternative theory can be developed and trialled.

Student contribution to whole-school improvement

In addition to contributing to improving learning in the classroom, students have a significant contribution to make to whole-school improvement. In most schools, this potential remains unexplored, let alone realised.

There are many more students than adults (teachers, administrators and support staff) in most schools. While student-teacher ratios vary enormously by school type and sector, it is generally true that students outnumber adults by more than five to one in most schools. In some places, the ratio is more than ten to one.

The adult populations in schools are diverse; this is even more so for most student populations. There is a rich diversity of backgrounds, languages, cultures, experiences and skills in both the adult and student populations in all schools. This is more pronounced in some schools than others, but it is always present. (Such is the nature of variation in social systems).

Yet in most schools, school improvement is the domain of adults alone.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The enormous potential of student creativity remains untapped in most schools. Young people have not yet learned some of the constrained thinking that we tend to acquire through life. Students can ask the obvious questions that we don’t even see and have ideas for improvement we could never dream of.

Hallett Cove R-12 School
Student Improvement Teams

Students can lead and participate in improvement teams to address key issues of concern.  We have worked with student teams over many years on school, community and industry-based improvement projects. They have never failed to do a remarkable job.

Students from the Student Leadership Team at Hallett Cove R-12 School in South Australia recently participated in a rigorous process of school improvement using the PDSA cycle.

Ten teams were formed looking at issues that affected them within their school.

Student teams worked out how to make things better, not just different.  They wanted things to get better, and stay better.  They made considered recommendations for sustainable improvement.
Student Improvement Teams from Hallett Cover R-12 School, South Australia

The objectives of the process were for students to:

  • learn more about the Quality Learning approach to improvement
  • learn first-hand about managing and improving organisations
  • develop skills in teamwork, goal setting, time management and communication
  • reflect upon and share what was learned
  • make significant improvements to the school and classroom!

The process comprised three phases:

  1. Training Day
  2. Four-day PDSA School Improvement Experience
  3. An Evaluation Meeting.

The Training Day introduced the knowledge and skills needed to participate in the improvement process. This training included the Principles of Quality Learning and some of the Quality Learning tools.

Phase 2 was where the bulk of the work was done. Students analysed a school situation or process, using the PDSA cycle and Quality Learning tools, to understand the system, identify root causes, develop solutions and make recommendations. To do this the used the following process (and tools):

1 Select the team

1.1 How will team members work together? (Code of Cooperation)

1.2 How will the team keep track of ideas and issues? (Parking Lot)

2 Clarify the opportunity for improvement

2.1 Precisely what is the opportunity for improvement? (Problem Statement)

2.2 Who are the clients and what do they need? (Perception Analysis)

3 Study the current situation

3.1 What is the current process flow, policy and/or state of relationships? (Deployment Flow Chart and/or Affinity Diagram)

4 Analyse the causes

4.1 What are the possible causes of variation and poor performance? (Fishbone Diagram)

4.2 What are the root causes of variation and poor performance? (Hot Dot and Interrelationship Digraph)

4.3 What data are needed to measure performance? (Measures Selection Matrix)

4.4 What do the data say about current performance? (Check Sheets, Run Charts, Pareto Charts)

5 Develop a theory for improvement

5.1 What are the possible solutions, and which will have the greatest impact? (Potential Improvements Matrix)

5.2 What are the recommendations for action, including time lines and responsibilities? (Gantt Chart)

5.3 How will the recommendations be communicated?

On the final afternoon, teams presented their findings to the school leadership team. The other Student Teams were also present. Their findings were presented as a written report and a presentation.

The Evaluation Meeting occurred in the days following the report presentation and provided an opportunity to give feedback to the school about their experience.

The many excellent recommendations were acted upon in the weeks that followed, and have made lasting and significant improvements to the school.

In the words of Andrew Gohl, Assistant Principal:

The PDSA cycle provides a structure and a clear process that people can work through, that is inclusive of all voices: regardless of whether you are the very young, the very old, the very vociferous, the very quiet. There’s a clear process there for everyone to have a voice, for everyone to be heard. And, of course, in that inclusiveness, the outcome is one which meets everybody’s needs.

Watch the video that tells the story of the Hallett Cove R-12 School Student Teams.