What's Happening in Character?

Intrinsic Motivation—It's an Inside Job

Posted by Dara Feldman on Thu, Jul 26, 2018 @ 09:07 AM

Think about something that you love to do! Perhaps it is reading a good book, playing a video game, being in nature, spending time with your family, or eating a decadent chocolate treat. Does anyone need to give you a sticker, pay you some money, or give you an award for doing what you love to do? Of course not! That’s because you are “intrinsically motivated” to do so.  

Intrinsic motivation is when your drive to do something comes from within, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, where there is some external force motivating your action.

Character.org’s 7th Principle of Effective Character Education is “The school fosters students’ self-motivation.”  

  • Staff and students recognize and celebrate the natural, beneficial consequences of acts of character rather than rewarding students with material recognition or rewards.
  • The school’s approach to student conduct uses all aspects of behavior management—including rule-setting and rule-enforcement—as opportunities to foster students’ character development, especially their understanding of and commitment to core values.

In what ways do you foster students’ intrinsic motivation? Joining the Character Exchange can inspire and empower you to add to your repertoire. 

In the book “Activating the Desire to Learn,” Bob Sullo expounds upon William Glasser’s (1998) choice theory of motivation. Sullo explains that beyond physical needs, we have fundamental psychological needs relevant in the education setting:

  • “The need for belonging or connecting motivates us to develop relationships and cooperate with others. Building a spirit of connection and community is essential to creating a need-satisfying school characterized by high achievement.

We need to be able to feel empowered that we are capable of doing something. Power is achieved through competence, achievement and mastery. One of our jobs as educators is to teach kids how to be powerful in a responsible way.

  • We need freedom; freedom of choice, giving students voice and choice over not necessarily what they will learn but that how they can go about learning it. As humans we are motivated to be free, to choose. Effective teachers help students follow the drive to be free in a way that is respectful to others.
  • We need some fun: A joyless classroom never inspires students to do high quality academic work on a regular basis. When teachers and kids are having fun, learning is deeper and stronger, and students maintain the keen desire to learn that characterizes early childhood learning centers.”

When we are having fun, learning is deeper and stronger and we are naturally more intrinsically motivated. You may wish to try this activity with your class the next time they could use a little “brain break” or energy boost. Invite your students to think about what brings them joy or something for which they are grateful. Play some joyful music and invite students to walk or dance around the room until the music stops. When the music stops, have them turn to someone standing next to them and tell their partner something that brings them joy or a gratitude. Turn the music back on and have the students continue to walk or dance around the room. When you stop the music again, have them share something different about joy and gratitude with a different partner. Do this a few times, and then have the students sit down and reflect on how they are feeling. Notice the energy, the smiles on their faces, and the purposefulness and productivity that happen as a result.

What else helps us to be intrinsically motivated? Ted Wachtel, the Founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (www.iirp.edu), explains that “the fundamental hypothesis of restorative practice is that people are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things WITH them, rather than TO them or FOR them.” This premise supports Sullo’s theory of motivation. Here are resources that can help you dig deeper into restorative practices…if you are motivated to do so. 

Think about how often you give your students voice and choice, doing things “with” them instead of “to” or “for” them. Do you come up with your class rules on your own or do you engage your students in determining the way they want to be in community by developing shared agreements? Using community building circles is a foundational aspect of restorative practices and a great way to give everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.  

Jeff Hogan, the passionate principal of Elmwood Elementary in Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, is committed to the use of circles for building relationships, problem solving, and academics. For a 40 Days of Learning blog post, Jeff wrote, “One very advantageous first step was the implementation of classroom morning circles on a daily basis. A circle where each day the entire class says “good morning” to every child within the circle. A circle where all opinions count, tears are embraced, and empathy and sympathy are nurtured through the rich experience. A circle where discussions among children consist of deep and profound topics such as, but not limited to, bullying, role-models, forces of nature and its devastation, race, and even equity. A morning circle where virtues are discussed at length, and grit and growth mindsets are cultivated. A circle where some children arrive on-time simply to ensure they will be a part of the morning discourse.” Being a part of the community is an intrinsic motivating factor.

Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, and video, “The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” explains from his research that intrinsic motivation is based on three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. 

  • “Autonomy is the need to direct your own life and work. To be fully motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with.
  • Mastery is the desire to improve. If you are motivated by mastery, you'll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you'll constantly seek to improve your skills through learning and practice. Someone who seeks mastery needs to attain it for its own sake.
  • People may become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don't understand, or can't invest in, the "bigger picture."  But those who believe that they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive and engaged.”

I leave you with the following virtue card of purposefulness and invite you to do a 21-day virtues-pick challenge. You can access the virtues cards for free here or download the app. I have found that doing a virtues pick on a daily basis calls me to my higher self and is the secret to tapping into my intrinsic motivation. I hope you will feel the same.  


4AR06523Dara Feldman has 16 years of experience as a classroom teacher, during which she was named Disney’s 2005 Elementary School Teacher of the year. In addition to serving as a Character.org trainer and evaluator, Dara is also an ASCD Faculty Member, Success Principles trainer and Virtues Project master facilitator. She previously served as the president of the Maryland Center for Character Education and the author of The Heart of Education, a book about bringing meaning and joy back to teaching and learning.