On Intrinsically Motivating Students

GUEST COLUMN | by Jen Lilienstein

In late February, EdWeek’s Susan Sandler wrote about Personalization 3.0, or “a hybrid approach of humanity and technology…that uses technology to enhance teacher-student relationships, not replace them.”

Sandler references Theodore R. Sizer’s work (late founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools) who emphasized that, for students to succeed, they must be personally known at school and have strong relationships with the people there. But Sizer is not the only one who’s talked about the importance of quality learning relationships. In fact, learning theorists and pedagogists from Piaget to Vygotsky, Briggs-Myers to Lawrence, Dewey to Comer, Sousa, Willis, and Cushman. The list literally goes on and on.

Just like the product of a child’s IQ and EQ (IQ*EQ) has a significant impact on SAT scores and career trajectory, the product of a teacher’s EQ has a significant impact on his ability to positively impact two critical dimensions of educating our children: (1) whetting students’ appetites for learning and (2) learning how to effectively work together in teams.

These two dimensions, in my mind, are really the primary strengths that come from the classroom and school model and why the move to Personalization 3.0 is so critical. Thanks to the Internet, kids can explore virtually any field they want from their desks or couches at home and leverage the power of Personalization 2.0. Even kids from low-income neighborhoods can hit local libraries and learn to their heart’s content.

What’s different about school? Kids spend more than 1,000 hours in the classroom each year with other people. With a teacher with high EQ at the helm of a classroom, kids not only have an opportunity to learn how to successfully navigate relationships with people of varying temperaments, they can find shared enthusiasms with other kids, and spark NEW passions in unexpected places as a result of other students’ or teachers’ “fires in the mind”. A teacher with high EQ also gives kids the opportunity to think critically about new ideas in a safe space and models how to constructively criticize both their own viewpoints and those of their peers.

By focusing exclusively on Personalization 2.0 and the common core, we let the EQ piece of our education equation atrophy and turned our innovation engine into a regurgitation engine. By using Personalization 3.0 to raise the EQ of teachers and parents, we have an opportunity to help kids celebrate and truly realize their own unique potentials and become intrinsically motivated to follow their passions and become lifelong learners.

Why is intrinsically motivating students in this way so important? Because no matter how much content we force-feed kids during a school day, it’s what the kids choose to do outside the classroom that will either close—or widen—the achievement gap between classmates in a positive or negative way. One of the reasons that fourth-grade slump starts to occur (when education shifts from “learn-to-read” into “read-to-learn”) is that the more privileged kids have access to enrichment activities that expand out their life experience and allow them to contextualize new knowledge and chunk more effectively. It’s not the practice and the flash cards that matter, it’s the additional contexts that get layered in via life experiences that can tie back into what they’re learning in class and so that they don’t have to keep so much of what they’re learning in class in “working” memory, but can instead shift new knowledge into long-term memory chunks. (From Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham)

In other words, the learning outcomes that will truly have a positive long-term impact on the next generation cannot be measured by standardized STARS testing or AYP at the end of the school year. It’s whether or not we’ve managed, as parents and teachers, to key into kids’ learning preferences and “teach” them not just core curriculum in school, but that learning in and of itself can be fun.  If we’ve managed to teach kids to love learning, they will take their free time in Summer months and afterschool hours to stretch and strengthen their mind muscles. If we don’t, there’s a good chance that (particularly low-income students) will choose to “Summer Slide” and avert self-directed learning opportunities.

But a teacher’s EQ can have an additional positive impact beyond intrinsically motivating the individual learners in his classroom. He can also help students more effectively navigate peer relationships and demonstrate via breakout groups each student’s unique strengths and how to effectively collaborate with various personality types—a critical skill in essentially any career path a student selects.

In my mind, EdTech Personalization 2.0 may have helped our students become more competitive in our global standings, but EdTech Personalization 3.0 will help the next generation leverage our strength in numbers and collaborate.


Jen Lilienstein, founder of kidzmet, serves on the Editorial Board of the National Afterschool Association (NAA), the Publications and Platform Committees of the NAA, the Quality Committee of the California Afterschool Network, and advocates for Afterschool for All with the Afterschool Alliance. She is also a member of BOOST and ASCD.


  1. Reblogged this on Class(ic) Stories and commented:
    This is a nice writeup which puts the limelight on a teacher’s emotional state; most of the T&L literature is too much focused on the learners!

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