How do we do school in the US? Lecture. Practice by yourself. Independently show what you know. Everyone does the same thing. There is no deviation. We educate with a one-size-fits-all model. Conformity, compliance, and linearity are prized. We often treat our students like robots and at the same time we wonder why we are failing to motivate them.

At a recent Momentous Institute conference, Sir Ken Robinson contrasted conformity with diversity, compliance with creativity, and linearity with abstraction. He posed the question, “How do we get kids to fall in love with learning?” If we strive for conformity, compliance, and linearity, at best, we will continue to create a limited number of life-long learners.

But someone might say, “With the advent of technological integration, hasn’t this changed?” Just giving someone technology, does not change the teacher. On the Blue Skunk Blog, Doug Johnson describes one of his most recent ventures into the classroom. He went to observe a technology-rich classroom, and technology was abundant. The instructor had a document camera, a computer, a projector, and an interactive white board. However, even though the technology was there, the teacher was demonstrating how to work through an algebraic equation on the document camera. The $3,400 technology suite was functioning like a fancy piece of chalk. Money and technology do not transform education. Knowledge won’t necessarily change education. They are merely tools that an inspiring teacher can use to enhance student engagement. When evaluating teachers and educational programs, they should be evaluated on how they are transforming learning by integrating tools to enhance inquiry, critical thinking, personalization, collaboration.1

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  While this is a great quote, how do we create life-long learners who long for the endless immensity and depth of the sea of education, and more specifically the Word of God?

My focus in this article is increasing motivation in Christian education, both our Christian schools and our churches. How do we increase motivation and help others fall in love with learning and more specifically with learning the Word of God? First, we will look at motivation. What doesn’t work? What works? Second, what are the keys of motivation? Third, how can we apply these keys of motivation to the Christian educational system?

 How to Decrease Motivation

In an article by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,2 four researches studied the idea of motivation and extrinsic rewards. They found that the higher the payoff, the higher the performance. However, this was only true when the task required less than rudimentary cognitive knowledge. When the task required higher than rudimentary cognitive knowledge, higher rewards led to lower performance. Therefore, some would argue that if-then rewards only work in the short term for tasks that require low cognitive involvement. Pink says it this way, “Tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.”3

In “Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives Jointly Predict Performance: A 40-Year Meta-Analysis” by Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford,4 the authors synthesize 40 years of science on the relationship between incentives and motivation. What the studies found was that if-then rewards are great for simple tasks and short term benefits. In other words, they are good for quantity but bad for quality. In-then rewards can kill engagement. Short-term rewards tend to kill interest.

Sir Ken Robinson, at a recent conference in Dallas, spoke on “How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.”5 In other words, he spoke on revolutionizing education through increased motivation. To summarize his message, he said that the secular educational system is based upon conformity, compliance, and linearity. I would argue that our Christian education system is not much different. There are some problems with basing your educational system on these three components:

  1. Conformity (vs. diversity) – if we have a narrow view of talent, we will exclude/stifle creative genius, killing the motivation of those who have the potential to revolutionize the way things are done/viewed. This has direct application in the church. If we price preaching and teaching adults, are we not stifling the motivation of others who may want to use their giftedness?
  2. Compliance (vs. creativity) – if we force everyone to do the same thing (obedience to the pre-packaged lesson), we kill creativity, which kills motivation.  Are students/teachers/volunteers encouraged to come up with creative solutions?
  3. Linearity (vs. spontaneity/abstraction) – if we require education to work like a factory, we will always get the same product and it will never be as efficient, as creative, or as effective as if we treated education like a farm. We need to provide the proper conditions for growth (i.e. soil, water, light), and growth will occur.

So, how do we decrease motivation?

  • By demanding conformity, compliance, and linearity.
  • By stifling creativity.

This is all too often indicative of both our secular and Christian educational system. So, how can we increase motivation?

The Key to Increasing Motivation

In Daniel Pink’s article “Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink,”6 he describes much of what we have already discussed. If-then rewards only work in the short-run, for low-cognitive dependent tasks, and when quantity is more important than quality. Pink believes that the key to motivation is autonomy. He writes,

There’s a huge difference between compliant behavior and engaged behavior. With compliant behavior, you’re doing what someone told you to do the way they told you to do it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s different from engagement. With engagement, you’re doing something because you truly want to do it, because you see the virtues of doing it.

With the Understanding By Design (UBD) framework in mind,7 we should seek to write our educational curriculum with the end in mind. The question “What do we want our students/disciples to know/do and how should they be transformed in the end?” should drive our teaching, our performance tasks, and our assessment. So, what kinds of students are we trying to create?

The United States has historically been a country full of innovation; however, at the same time, its education system has prized compliance. When we think of a life-long learner, do we think of someone who is compliant or engaged? Pink goes on to say, “So if we really want engagement rather than compliance, we have to increase the degree of autonomy that people have over what they do; over how, when, and where they do it; and over whom they do it with.” This means that we need to give students greater discretion over what they learn, how they learn it, and how we assess what they know. One of the greatest challenges that teachers face is that compliance is easier. It’s much easier to give a one-sized-fits-all approach to learning. It’s much easier to put everyone is pues or rows and lecture. “That’s how it’s done. That’s how I learned.”

How does a greater degree of autonomy lead to greater engagement? Student autonomy not only allows students to build greater capacity through independent research and learning, but it also allows the students to take control of their learning and nuance their educational path in such a way that they are able to enjoy their learning at a deeper and more personal level. It is important to note that autonomy should not be divorced from mastery or competence. Students want to feel like they are competent at whatever they are trying to learn. When you know that you’re not good at something, you tend not to enjoy it. Niemiec and Ryan in an article entitled “Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice” explain that “SDT (Self-Determination Theory) posits that intrinsic motivation is sustained by satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”8 They go on to explain that dozens of students demonstrate that when autonomy and competence are both present, motivation increases; however, when either is absent, motivation decreases.

Pink’s final motivator is purpose. Teachers as well as students do better when they know why they are doing what they are doing. Teachers go into teaching not because they will become millionaires (certainly true of volunteers) but because they love to teach. They want to change lives. If teachers made tons of money, the profession would attract people who do not love kids and who are not motivated by changing lives. Conversely, if teachers feel like they are not able to change lives, their motivation decreases. Likewise, students who learn for grades do not become life-long learners, do not long for the vast sea of education, and produce quantity over quality. Yet, if the students and teachers feel like the education has purpose, both will be more motivated in their roles. 

According to Pink, autonomy, mastery, and purpose increase motivation.

Transforming Motivation in the Christian Education

How can we enhance our students’ motivation to learn?

  1. Autonomy

It is common for educational programs to have a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all approach to learning.9 This undermines both autonomy as well as purpose. When all students complete the same tasks with little choice, creativity is stifled. Students are more motivated to perform at higher levels of quality when they are given opportunities for creativity, inquiry, and critical thinking. What are some ways that this can be done?

  • Choice/Control – give the students several distinct ways of demonstrating their knowledge. For example, if you want the students to critique an author’s viewpoint, let them choose between a critical review (essay), a relevant application (a lesson teaching their viewpoint, extension, etc.), a comic book critique aimed at children or another specific demographic, create a wiki, a video critique (dramatic, filmed lesson/speaking event, etc.) or a critical blog post. In the church, give people a choice or control over what they learn and how they learn it.
  • Collaboration – allow discussion within your lesson. Encourage inquiry and questions.
  • Genius Hour Projects – another way of creating autonomy in a classroom context is to allow a genius hour summative project where the teacher gives the parameters but the students are allowed to be as creative and autonomous in terms of input (research) and output (presentation) as the teacher’s parameters allow. Autonomy with accountability is important.
  1. Mastery/Competence

Human beings enjoy doing things that they feel they are competent doing. How can we ensure that more of our students feel competent? Scaffolding and differentiated instruction are both used in K-12, secular English language learner (ELL) classrooms but have significant and important implications in general education as well as Christian education.

  • Scaffolding scaffolding can be used no matter the level. Ensuring that all students are successful no matter their level of knowledge can be done through building background knowledge, helping all students understand difficult concepts through greater explanation, modeling, providing examples, and through coaching. This should be the heart of mentoring/discipleship.
  • Differentiated Instruction – Going back to Understanding by Design as a curricular framework, what kind of students are we trying to create? If we are trying to create good readers and writers, this model makes sense. However, if we also want to create learners who express their knowledge in creative ways, creative output should also be allowed (video essays, creative options for synthesizing and displaying knowledge, etc.).  Differentiated instruction can help students feel like they are growing in their mastery of content through short-term wins.
  1. Purpose/Relevance

Twenty-first century students detest busy work. They want to know that what they are learning will benefit them in some way and serves a purpose. How can we ensure that our students are more motivated through the final branch of Pink’s theory? First, we need to be explicit in what the purpose of every assignment is. We should not only have objectives for the class but the purpose and relevance of each assignment. Second, teachers should assign work because they believe the knowledge is important. Why is it important? How will the learning benefit the student? Returning to UBD once again, how does this activity contribute to the kind of student the teacher is trying to create?


1 See
See Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 37.
Understanding by Design is a curricular framework that essentially works backwards. First, you ask “What do I want my students to know/be able to do/look like?” Once you know what you want in the end, you can more effectively design your curriculum.
See Niemiec and Ryan, “Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice,” 135,
9 See Cronjé, “Metaphors and Models in Internet-based Learning,” 155.