Spotlight On: The Great Motivator

2 June 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 2 June 2023.

Winston Churchill was a famously poor student. His boarding school in Brighton considered him ‘negligent, slovenly… perpetually late’ and his Housemaster at Harrow reported ‘(his) forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way, have really been so serious… he ought to be at the top of his form, whereas he is at the bottom.’

Historians considered his school performance evidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Dyslexia. These claims are disputed by The Churchill Centre who claim ‘he was actually quite good at subjects he enjoyed and in fact won several school prizes’ (Learning Liftoff), not to mention a Nobel Prize for Literature later in his life. In other words, Churchill excelled in areas that interested him – when he was motivated.

Does this story offer a glimmer of hope for parents managing despondent youths? Perhaps. If you can pinpoint what motivates your daughter and adapt accordingly.

As part of our Smart Study partnership with the Association of Independent Schools and the University of New South Wales, Queenwood is measuring student motivation in Years 9 & 10 in four distinct categories:
  • Extrinsic Motivation (pursuit of accolade);
  • Identified Motivation (the pursuit of personal goals);
  • Intrinsic Motivation (the joy of engaging in a task); and
  • Introjected Motivation (avoiding fear or shame).
In his book Do Hard Things Steve Magness addresses this last category – introjected motivation – noting its prevalence in parenting, sport, and the military. Tales of authoritative parenting, brutal training sessions, and boot camps designed to improve physical and psychological fortitude (referred to in his work as ‘toughness’) did not yield the desired results. These activities sorted participants, but not in the right way. The candidates able to endure brutal trials ‘displayed external signs of machismo (but were) often the weakest’(p.9). They usually persisted when spurred on by a powerful, overbearing figure, but failed in their ultimate task – long-term academic, sporting, or military success – because they were unable to act independently. Without a commanding presence directing every action, they didn’t know what to do.

In the last few decades, the US Airforce has adjusted training to ensure soldiers are better able to take calm and decisive action in stressful situations. The premise of their program is this: before you throw soldiers in the deep end of the pool, you must first teach them to swim (Magness, p.32). In other words, creating tough soldiers begins with education in crucial skills like goal setting, positive self-talk, collaboration, and planning. These skills – which develop ‘wellbeing’ through ‘learned optimism, resilience, post-traumatic growth, and emotional regulation’ (p.33) – align with Smart Study lessons currently being delivered to Years 9 & 10 students at Queenwood. Young people, like military recruits, need to be given the skills to negotiate increasingly complex situations and opportunities to practise them so they can build confidence in making decisions, adapting to new contexts, and managing failure.

We see these patterns borne out in educational research. In contexts where teachers or parents intervene in decision-making, student self-efficacy is eroded, as is their self-confidence (Alliance of Girls’ Schools). In contexts that promote independence through knowledge, belief, commitment and planning, students are more engaged and motivated (McDaniel & Einstein, 2020). Like Churchill, students who feel control over their own learning demonstrate greater levels of identified or intrinsic motivation prompting greater success within and beyond the school gates. These students learn, not because someone is telling them to, but because they want to. They demonstrate ‘real toughness… a kind that replaces control with autonomy, appearance with substance, rigidity pushing forward with flexibility to adapt, motivation from fear with inner drive, and insecurity with a quiet confidence’ (Magness, p.14).

As you read your daughter’s report in a few weeks, consider her motivation in different areas of her schooling. Are disappointing results a true indication of capacity, or a reflection of her choices (revealing her priorities)? Are encouraging results a reflection of one of the four types of motivation? What might be possible if we encourage your daughter to choose her own path and live with the accompanying failures and successes? Just look at the shift in Churchill’s report card when he set his own agenda – from ‘slovenly’ to ‘the greatest Englishman of his time, full of years and honour’ (Final report card, the Guardian).