The Malleability of Motivation by Rob Gulya

Diego looks like he could be a linebacker for the Denver Broncos. He’s 6 feet tall with hulking shoulders and a deep baritone voice. As he takes his seat in the classroom, Diego’s legs don’t fit under the desk. He has to either stretch his legs out into the aisle or his desk becomes a not-so-gently sloping hill away from him. He places a book on it, and it begins to slip away. Pens and pencils roll off immediately. In order to retrieve them, Diego has to physically pick up the desk and move it so he can reach down to the floor.

Diego has recently moved back to New York City after spending two years attending school at a northern suburb. He is repeating the 9th grade and struggling to consistently find success. Diego’s parents are Spanish-dominant, and Diego is very proud of his Dominican culture. Diego likes to watch TV, so he has a fairly large verbal vocabulary, but his writing lags far behind. Diego also struggles with some of the more basic parts of “doing school”– asking to get out of his seat, staying focused for long amounts of time, needing to raise his hand to speak. Diego has recently been classified as having a learning disability because of his struggles in reading and writing.

Diego, however, has also shown he has the ability to be successful. When texts are read aloud in English, he understands them. He remembers the finer details of a story better than most of his peers, and his verbal vocabulary is much larger. After falling behind in his English class, Diego was given a Spanish language version of the text  A Long Way Gone. Over the course of a week, Diego read the entire book and understood it better than many of his peers.

So it was a little surprising– and disappointing– when Diego came to class and announced, “I don’t care about this class. I don’t care about school. I’m going to drop out.”

As Diego’s story shows, motivating adolescents is a funny thing. In some ways, young adults are motivated in the same way adults are. They are motivated when they feel competent; they are motivated when they feel a sense of autonomy and agency; they are motivated when they feel a sense of belonging, when the values of the environment are the same as their own individual values. Ask anyone who likes their job why they like it, and it usually comes back to one of these three components: competency, agency, belonging.

For adolescents, however, there is an additional, possibly overarching need: Identity. When students enter a school or a classroom, they quickly attune themselves to the environment. In a matter of minutes they can feel marginalized, or they can feel included. Students can feel safe, or they can feel judged. Students can feel like they can embrace their identity, or they can feel fractured from it.

Researcher Angela Valenzuela calls this fracturing of identity “subtractive schooling.”  Her study of Latino students found that many students feel they need to check their identities at the door prior to entering the classroom. This leaves students to feel as though they have to choose between their home culture and the “school culture.” They become split between being their authentic self or their academic self. Thus, the action of participating studiously becomes separate from who they are in “real life.”

Motivation is obviously a lot more complicated than this. Identity and marginalization are only one factor that effects whether or not students feel motivated to participate in school. There are social factors within the school (relationships with peers, relationships with adults), and outside of the school (racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes), and there are a host of emotional factors in the child. So while looking at motivation through a single lens is somewhat limiting, I also think it’s worthwhile.

Perhaps the most important thing we, as teachers, need to understand about motivation is that motivation, like intelligence, is highly malleable. It can change from domain to domain (think of people more motivated to read than do math) or from classroom to classroom. It can change over the course of a day, a week, or a year. Thus, statements about students being “unmotivated” or tracking students based on their motivation in school can be really harmful to school culture and to student learning.

Providing authentic opportunities for student voices to be heard and used in both the classroom and the greater school community are pivotal to motivating and engaging all students in learning. Authentic student voice opportunities put students in charge of their own learning. Rather than learning being something that happens to them, learning becomes something that students actively create. Students become agents of their own change in the classroom; learning is constructed by teacher and student.

In the era of Common Core, where students, teachers, and administrators feel greater pressure to raise test scores, authentic opportunities for student voices are being push aside in favor of skill and drill activities. However, if we are to truly prepare students to be the leaders of tomorrow, then we must provide them with the opportunity to lead. If students are to become agents of change, what better way to start than their own learning?

So how can schools motivate students like Diego?

  1. Culturally Responsive Teaching that embraces student identity to enhance, rather than subtract from, the classroom.
  2. Build classrooms around student voice that allows students to explore their identities within the confines of the classroom.
  3. Get to know students- know their triggers and their anxieties, know their strengths and their desires. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to motivating adolescents.


On one of the last days of class, Diego came into the room and went to take  his usual seat. I stopped him, and asked him to sit at a table I have set up in the front of the room to organize student papers and handouts. When he sat down, his legs fit under the desk. His pens, and papers, and books didn’t slide slowly out of reach.


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