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Perhaps, as we seek to increase student academic achievement, we're neglecting the root cause of lagging achievement: student motivation.

What does learning fueled by student motivation look like?

Perhaps we're neglecting the root cause of lagging academic achievement: student motivation

Key points:

Editor’s note: This article on learning and student motivation originally appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog and is reposted here with permission.

In 2020, my wife and I bought a used 2017 Nissan Leaf (an all-electric vehicle) for her commute to work. We thought it was a practical choice, but we soon found our purchase had come with some serious limitations. First, the car had very limited range, meaning we had to restrict our trips to about a 30-mile radius from our house. Then, about a year into owning the car, an even worse issue came up that gave us major heart palpitations: the car would completely lose power and stall while climbing the freeway grade between our valley and the neighboring town where my wife works. 

Despite our best efforts—driving conservatively, using the Eco mode, turning on regenerative braking, and installing lightweight tires—the problems persisted. None of those efficiency improvements could compensate for the real problem: the car’s degraded battery. After working and waiting through some major customer service hurdles caused by pandemic supply chain issues, we finally got the problem fixed. Nissan replaced the battery on warranty. Suddenly, our once troubled Leaf was able to climb the hill without stalling and complete a 90-mile round trip to Los Angeles on a single charge.

As I’ve thought about this experience recently, I’ve noticed some interesting parallels with common approaches to improving education. We often attempt small tweaks and modifications in our educational system—upgrading curriculum, training teachers on new instructional strategies—hoping to see major gains in student achievement. But much like our initial efforts with the Leaf, these changes often seem to have only marginal impacts on learning. Maybe the reason why is that we’re not addressing the real issue. Maybe we’re neglecting the ‘battery’ at the heart of education: student motivation.

Recently, I explored this idea around student motivation by visiting two unique nonprofits that put student motivation at the heart of learning: The Macomber Center in Framingham, Massachusetts and Rock Tree Sky in Ojai, California. These self-directed learning centers operate on the belief that when students find genuine interest in their learning journey, they become more engaged and, in turn, more successful.

My tour guide at the Macomber Center was my seven-year-old nephew who’s a learner there. Set amidst a landscape of wooded areas and open fields, the center emanated an atmosphere of peaceful exploration. My nephew, a seasoned explorer, was eager to show us the lay of the land. He led us into the outdoor wilderness, showing off his favorite hide-and-go-seek spots amidst the overgrowth and the fields where he plays ultimate frisbee and soccer with his friends. These open spaces were a testament to the free, unrestricted inquiry that the center encourages.

Inside, the center seemed more like a bustling home than an educational institution. The large, communal room was filled with couches, tables, and chairs, mimicking a living room more than a traditional classroom. The space also included shelves laden with board games and a table and computer setup for operating a 3D printer. Adjacent rooms included an art studio stocked with supplies for young artists, a music room with  guitars and drums, and recording equipment where children could create and share their music.

During our visit, it became clear that the Macomber Center was ardently opposed to teacher-directed learning. The prevailing philosophy was that children should be given the freedom to discover, explore, and nurture their interests.

For my visit to Rock Tree Sky, I brought along my 12-year-old son. Accustomed to the conventional middle school he attends, he was instantly fascinated by this very different learning environment.

Located in a hilly, wooded area of Ojai, California, Rock Tree Sky is housed on a historical school campus dating back to 1911. Soon after we arrived, my son’s attention was drawn to a boy, about his age, using a 3D printer to create intricate containers for geocaching. My son, himself a geocaching enthusiast, ended up spending most of our visit hanging out with the boy, learning hands-on about 3D modeling, and enjoying the camaraderie born out of shared interests.

The former classrooms at Rock Tree Sky were transformed into inspiring learning spaces. We found everything from a stop motion animation station and an electronics soldering desk to a music production room and an art studio with various textiles, ceramics, paints and a loom. Outside, a playful blend of conventional climbing structures, repurposed tires, logs and boards invited creativity and construction. A thriving greenhouse, a blacksmith forge, and a woodworking area with power tools were visible testaments to the diverse interests nurtured there.

This unique learning landscape, abundant in resources and driven by the curiosity of its learners, offered my son an immediate immersion into a different way of learning. Like the Macomber Center, it was an experience that couldn’t be replicated within the constraints of a conventional classroom.

But what about content?

There’s a good case to be made that all kids need to learn to read and write, do basic math, and understand core content from history and science in order to be contributing and successful participants in society. And college is only an option for kids who receive a certain level of academic preparation. Throughout these visits, an important question weighed on my mind: How do these self-directed learning centers ensure students learn foundational content?  

The simple answer is, they don’t.

When I posed this question to Denise Geddes, the administrative director of the Macomber Center, she highlighted that children who attend the Center can be onsite from two to five days a week, and the success of a child in the Center hinges on support they get at home. The Center defers to parents to decide what and how their kids should learn. For example, some parents may send their kids to the Center with instruction to spend part of their time doing math activities through an iPad app. Others may teach math, reading, and other content explicitly as part of homeschooling during the days when their children don’t attend the Center. Still others may conclude that their kids will learn content through day-to-day activities, such as learning to write by writing a letter or learning fractions while using measuring cups for cooking.

Nonetheless, the Center’s dedicated staff, whose skills and expertise are wide-ranging, play a significant role in shaping what parents think about how and what their kids will learn at the Center. Geddes notes that “We are clear that we will not coerce a kid to study or learn a subject, but we are there to help in whatever way a kid wants when an interest is discovered and pursued, whether that be through formal classes or more informal discussions one-on-one or in a group.”

Jim Bailey, the director at Rock Tree Sky, likewise made clear that the program doesn’t schedule instructional time for covering academic content. But the program does place a high priority on hiring full- and part-time staff with deep and diverse areas of expertise to serve as mentors for the learners who attend their program. These mentors play a key role in sparking and then guiding students’ interests. Many of the learners are also enrolled in an independent study program offered by their local school district. While Rock Tree Sky provides a space for experiential learning, the independent study program assigns learners to a district teacher who ensures that state standards are being met either through their activities at the program or through other learning experiences.

In both of these arrangements, I suspect social context shapes what kids are motivated to learn. For example, a child whose parent is an engineer is likely to have conversations about engineering at home, which in turn may be the spark that motivates curiosity to learn math and science. Similarly, a child may take an interest in history or literature after a peer or adult mentor shares their passion for these topics. That child may then choose to learn academic content through reading books, watching instructional videos on YouTube, or asking a peer or adult to teach them. Thus, self-directed learning in these settings may lead to formal instruction. But it’s formal instruction by choice, not compulsion. Realistically, the role models and communities in a child’s life greatly influence their interests. 

That raises a thornier question: can learning centers like these reliably lead children to successful careers and life opportunities regardless of their family background and home circumstances? Probably not. But these centers don’t purport to be one-size-fits-all models of education. Their aim is to provide learning experiences that can and do work exceptionally well for many kids but aren’t available in most schools. 

Rather than viewing models like these with skepticism until they prove that they can guarantee post-secondary success for all learners, maybe it’s time to expand our concept of education. Education doesn’t have to mean students do all of their important learning in classrooms. Education could be an ecosystem of interwoven experiences that occur in various settings and contexts. With such a reframing, it’s easy to see how all students could benefit from spending at least part of each day or each week in self-directed contexts that ignite their motivation. Like replacing a degraded battery in an electric car, sparking students’ motivation can truly fuel their learning journey.

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