A Lesson in Motivation

Dressed in a toga, crying in my classroom

As a teacher, I hated Friday afternoons. While my colleagues were giddy with end-of-the-week pub-citment I was sat alone in my classroom, dripping with anxiety.

Used under Creative Commons

Before I could even think about enjoying a beer with my colleagues, I had to teach That Class.

And I was terrified.

Every teacher encounters That Class at some point in their early career, but for me the stakes were high; they were less than nine months away from their final exams and I was convinced most of them were going to fail.

They were going to fail because they had absolutely no motivation — they oscillated between feeling so helplessly bad at philosophy that any effort was a waste of time, or thinking that philosophy was fundamentally pointless.

And as a fresh teacher, I was losing my patience.

I tried every type of reward to stimulate motivation, short of handing them cash. Certificates, stickers and raffle tickets with prizes all flat-lined. I even dressed up as an ancient Greek philosopher for one of their classes, in the hope my awkwardly eccentric commitment to the cause might galvanise their collective interest.

In reality, I was just reaching a new professional low — alone in my classroom on a Friday night, I cried. Dressed in a knock-off bedsheet of a toga.

Herodotus. Used under Creative Commons.

On this particular Friday, I had asked members of the class to prepare a ten-minute presentation on ‘Free Will’. I didn’t give them too much guidance because I wanted to see if they could take anything that resembles a modicum of ownership over their own learning.

The first student made her way to the front and began her presentation.

“I want you to close your eyes and imagine” she started “the coastline of the Pacific Northwest”

“FINALLY”, I told myself. “She must have really put some thought into this presentation — there is a God after all and her name is Patience.”

“… A pod of orcas is playfully swimming.” She continued. “The pod is then hunted down by a group of whalers, and one of them, named Willy, is separated and captured in their nets…”

“Wait”, I thought. “Is she talking about…”

Photographer: Thomas Kelley. Used under Creative Commons.

Yes. She was. This student had prepared a ten minute presentation on the 1993 American film Free Willy. And she delivered it, to her philosophy class, with all the confidence of an acclaimed film critic.

I let her continue to the end, interested to see how it would turn out. The students gave her a muffled round-of-applause, with some exchanging worried looks, as though they(!) had totally misunderstood the task. The second student walked to the front and began…

“Perhaps the whale is a metaphor for…” This student, it turned out, had prepared a presentation on Free Will, but panicked and (quite skilfully) free-styled some very tenuous comments about Free Willy after hearing the first presentation.

I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “How on earth did you confuse Free Will with Free Willy, in a philosophy class?!” I let out.

Photographer: Caio Resende. Used under Creative Commons.

Apparently, some students in That Class hadn’t made a note of their homework, so when it came to preparing the presentation they simply Googled “Free Wi…” and selected the first option given to them.

A Wikipedia page on Free Willy.

The opening line of the first student’s presentation is a direct copy of a line on the Wikipedia page.

This disaster of a class got me thinking. How can I even begin to motivate this class to care, an ounce, about philosophy?


In searching for an answer, I learned that the science of motivation is far from straightforward. Studies in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology make two, seemingly contradicting, claims:

  1. Extrinsic rewards (cold hard cash) can positively effect motivation in some tasks. You’re more likely to be motivated to collect litter if I pay you to do it. There’s also a neural link between reward systems and memory systems in the brain (Adcock et al, 2006; Murayama & Kitagami, 2014). But…

  2. Sometimes extrinsic rewards actively undermine motivation and performance in cognitive tasks — if I pay you to play an interesting trivia quiz there is a good chance it will have no effect on your motivation, and may even decrease your interest (Murayama et al, 2010).

Social psychologists call this phenomenon the Undermining Effect.

What is going on here?

Well, Muratama and his research team discovered that the key to motivation is how interesting the task is — participants in their study who were paid to answer interesting trivia questions were significantly less motivated than those who were not paid.

This was further supported by images of their brain that showed a decrease in the activation of their reward networks when presented with an interesting task (Murayama et al, 2010).

Image in Public Domain.

There appears to be a well of intrinsic motivation in all of us, so long as we find the task fundamentally interesting.

What does this mean for motivation and learning? Well, re-inventing how to reward students to keep them motivated might be a complete waste of time (and money!). Perhaps we should focus on tapping into stores of intrinsic motivation, helping children to learn how to tap into it themselves..?

Photographer: Alice Achertof. Used under Creative Commons.

When you think about it, it’s no surprise that we are capable of deep levels of intrinsic motivation.

History is littered with individuals who were driven to success, whether scientific or artistic, not by monetary reward but by a sense of mastery and purpose.

We all want to be good at stuff that matters to us.


That’s all well and good. But, how did I get my students to want to be good at philosophy? After all, the syllabus was completely out of my control.

Thinking back to the presentations my students gave on Free Will(y), they all had one thing in common — Wikipedia.

I decided to monopolise on two facts, often lamented by teachers: students seem to trust Wikipedia as an authority on almost anything, and it can be edited by almost anyone. I’m sure some students often trust Wikipedia more than their own teachers.

So, rather than wasting my breath telling them not to read it, I set out to teach them how to master philosophy in such a way that enabled them to meaningfully read or correct a source they had so blindly trusted before.

I designed a scheme of work with the aim of developing knowledge and skills to interrogate, and ultimately edit and even write Wikipedia pages on the more obscure philosophical concepts on the syllabus.

Suddenly, my students had a purpose to build mastery — and they loved it.

They started to want to read philosophical texts, share ideas with each other and even learn why and how to cite sources. Some even tried to understand how other Wikipedia editors had made a particular error before offering a correction.

Their purpose was to participate in the communal sense-making of the philosophical corpus, albeit in some small way — not to write for their exam but to write for whomever wanted to read.


I’m not sure this is a sustainable model for teaching philosophy, and it certainly has many pitfalls. But for my students, in a moment of disappear, it helped to bring back a sense of motivation. And it helped me to better appreciate the importance of mastery and purpose in our lives and the lives of our children.

Nine months later, as if as a by-product, none of them failed. And at least two went on to study philosophy at university.

I’ll take that.


Works cited:

Adcock, R.A., Thangavel, A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Knutson, B., & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2006). Reward-motivated learning: Mesolimbic activation precedes memory formation. Neuron, 50(3), 507–517.

Murayama, K. & Kitagami, S. (2014). Consolidation power of extrinsic rewards: Reward cues enhance long-term memory for irrelevant past events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 15–20.

Murayama, K., Matsumoto, M., Izuma, K., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural basis of the undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(49), 20911–20916.

Murayama, K. (2018) https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/06/motivation