Intrinsic Motivation


Something that I’ve been interested in from the outset, due to an excellent workshop in my first SI (led by Manjit and Dana), is the challenge of developing students’ intrinsic motivation. A few reflections thus far, 30 months in (!) : 

1. I really admire Dan Meyer’s (and others’) belief in reconceptualising maths teaching as presenting a problem that is naturally intriguing and interesting. Dan elucidates his beliefs well in this talk: 

I’ve put a lot of effort into trying to approach and teach maths in this way. It is so difficult at first! I lie: it is STILL really difficult and time-consuming. That said, it is immensely rewarding to see pupils’ genuine desire to solve a problem or master a skill. It’s been particularly fun to develop projects or ‘hooks’ relating to my own interests/sensibilities (e.g. designing hats as an exploration of sector area and curved length; comparing the most ‘generous’ containers for soft drinks as an introduction to volume, etc). I’ve resolved to write a few dedicated posts on such hooks/projects, but it could take a while to get around to it.  

That said, it makes me aware that I’ve been less attentive to this recently; I would love to hear others’ ideas about real-life* situations where trig or vectors are useful to solving a problem.

2. I’ve noticed that my weakest and strongest students seem to respond best to being motivated (whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic rewards). In the vast terrain that is ‘middle sets’, behaviour, learning, progress and enjoyment can be fine, but I find it’s all teacher-driven and that there is minimal genuine enthusiasm or curiosity. I am surprised at this ‘bunching’ at the two extremes. Is there something ‘deadening’ about being in middle sets? I am struggling even to posit a hypothesis on this. Have any of you witnessed a similar phenomenon?

3. A colleague has established an after-school A* (read: geeky maths) club, which started this half-term. It largely attracts Y10 pupils from sets 1 and 2, and they work on quite challenging or abstract problems, or shorter UKMT problems. I have been intrigued by how enthusiastic the pupils have been in this setting: it’s on a Monday, after they’ve already had double maths that day, and the problems are typically very ‘long’ (we’ve had pupils write 2-,3- and even 4-page solutions to problems that they’re submitting to nrich). It doesn’t only attract the ‘best’ pupils (in terms of results), although none of them are weak by any stretch. The last two weeks, they have only left at 5.30 (2 hours after they started!!!) because staff have told them to leave. Even by 5.30, their energy and enthusiasm is palpable.

Unexpected scenes at 5.30pm

Unexpected scenes at 5.30pm

There are no gimmicks and no rewards, and some are pupils who are (somewhat) lazy or disengaged in class. What is it about this setting that builds their energy and enthusiasm that doesn’t happen in lessons?


No doubt, I’ll be pondering the same questions in 12 months’ time; I’ll keep you posted:)


* Actual real-life, not artificial things like ships on the horizon…

1 Comment

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One response to “Intrinsic Motivation

  1. Hi Miss Quinn, great post. It occurs to me from reading section 3 that the children in the A* club sound like they are experiencing a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘flow’. The experience of flow generally occurs when the right balance is struck between challenge and perception of skills, so that people feel that the task is difficult, but not beyond their ability to complete. If that is what’s happening, then perhaps the problem in class, for the less engaged students, is that the balance of challenge and skills is off. Another possible explanation is that the choice the kids make to attend A* Club (which is not compulsory) sets them up to be able to sustain intrinsic motivation throughout the problem solving, whereas in class (because they feel compelled to be there) they find it difficult to tap into their intrinsic motivation to solve the problems.

    If you’re keen to find out about flow i would suggest this TED talk:

    For an interesting perspective on motivation i’d suggest looking into Self Determination Theory:

    Anyway, awesome blog. i’ll have to thank Joanna for putting me on to it. 🙂

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