Principles of Reformed Education: Motivating Students

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

A friend has challenged me that I need to spend more time on practical details. As a homeschool mom who has to have something to do with her kids every weekday morning, I completely understand this need. The particular question before us today is how we motivate our students to learn. If I were to classify most of what goes on in most education today, I would put motivational strategies in two categories: those which act on the material we teach and those which act upon the learner.

To act upon the material is to try to make what we teach more accessible and/or attractive to students. The underlying assumption behind such methods is that the students either can not or will not want to take in the material as it stands.  Some level of blame, perhaps unconsciously, is put on the material itself.

Charlotte Mason compared education to a feast laid before students. If so, the methods in this category treat education like Brussel sprouts, something inherently unappetizing to most kids [1]. If your child won’t eat their sprouts, there are a few ways you can go about getting him to do so. You might dress it up in some way, maybe make them look like little animals. This perhaps will make them more acceptable without actually changing how they taste.  You might change the flavor, maybe putting them in a creamy dip.  Or you might hide it altogether, chopping them small and baking them in brownies, so the child has no idea hat he ever ate the detested vegetable.

Just like Brussel sprouts, we try to sneak education into our children in various ways. Unit studies (see Unit Studies and additional thoughts), which relate different areas of learning to a common theme or topic, are one way we might both make learning more attractive and put in manageable chunks for children. In a typical unit study, there is a topic which all learning across subjects relates to for the length of the study. So we might decide on a knights and castles theme and in math word problems will feature knights; science will be about the physics of catapults; history will be about the middle ages; and literature will be stories about King Arthur. On one hand, this approach aims to make learning more attractive to children (what kid doesn’t love stories about knights and dragons?). On the other, it also to some degree cuts up the child’s intellectual food for him. That is, it makes particular connections for the child across subject areas. This has the effect, on one hand, of doing work for the child that he might be able to do for himself, but also, on the other, of potentially robbing him of different connections he might have made on his own. Other ways we dress up learning to make it more entertaining (or to hide it altogether) are to use games and craft projects and videos and . . . well, the list could go on quite a while.

The second major approach is to act on not the material but the child (though these two approaches may be, and often are, used in unison). The underlying assumption here is that the child will not want to learn and needs to be given other motivations. In doing so, we substitute temporary or secondary goals for a primary goal. The teacher’s goal is to get the student to learn some fact or body of knowledge. We assume that that will not happen directly and so we provide intermediate goals that we believe the child will desire.  Thus, if we want the child to learn the fifty states and their capitals, we might give him a sticker on a chart for each state he learns. The teacher’s goal is to have those states learned, but the child is given another goal: to fill up his sticker chart. In a class setting, there may be other goals as well — maybe the first child to fill up his chart gets an extra cookie at snack time. Now we have added one or even two new goals: the desire to win and the desire for a cookie are in play.

The problems with both of these approaches – that which acts upon the material and that which acts upon the child — are that they begin with faulty assumptions and that they have unintended, negative consequences. On one hand, we assume that the material — the intellectual food we have for the student — is unappetizing and possibly also indigestible. On the other, we assume that the student has no inherent desire to ingest what we have for him. The first assumption dishonors God and the second dishonors the child.

I have argued that in education we place before the child the things of God, His general revelation. If the things we have to give the child are good and true and beautiful (as they should be), they won’t need us to dress them up or disguise them. We need to trust that God’s things can work as He intends them to and we need to believe that they are inherently attractive and desirable. They don’t need us to make them more entertaining. [2] (I have discussed this previously in this post.)

Babies are intellectual sponges. They are learning more than we can imagine before we ever think to educate them. This innate ability and desire to learn continues into toddlerhood. Most 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds love to learn. Somewhere along the way we come to expect children to resist education and, sadly, they often comply. When treating the issue of motivation, we need to be realistic and acknowledge that some children have truly lost the desire for knowledge. Life is much easier if you start with young children who have not lost it yet. Then the main thing is to continue to give them the good intellectual food they crave.

But what of those children who have already begun to resist education? I believe the key to getting them back — and to never losing them in the first place — is to always keep our biggest and most important goals in mind. In the example above, the teacher’s goal was to have the student learn his states and the child’s goal (dictated by the teacher) was to get stickers. Neither one of them had a right or good goal. The ultimate goal for the teacher should not be to have the child learn this or that bit of knowledge. It is not a matter of what is learned at all but a question of who the child is becoming. Christian writers have defined the goal of education in various ways but wrapped up in them all is that the child, no less than the adult, should be conformed to the image of Christ (see Goals and Purposes). If we keep in mind that who the child is matters infinitely more than what he knows, then we will realize that if in the process of learning his states he loses his love of knowledge, he has lost more than he gained.

And how do children, whom God made learning machines, lose their desire to know? It is precisely our methods which rob him of it. We take a good, God-given love, the love of knowledge, and we place lesser loves in its place — the desire for a sticker, the desire to outdo one’s classmate or to get some other prize or privilege. These are the unintended consequences of our methods. We teach children that the things of God are not attractive, that they need to be dressed up by us. We teach them that the immediate, transitory award right in front of them is more to be desired than the less tangible thing.

Having once lost one’s love for knowledge, the road back is not an easy one. None of us ever give up our idols easily and in some sense that is just what needs to happen here. A God-given love has been replaced with a lesser one. Substituting in another lesser love is not going to solve the problem. Our goal needs to be te rekindle that first love. Though the process may be a long one, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for how we can get there:

  • Start with yourself. If you, the teacher, do not love knowledge, if you do not see God in what you are teaching, your students will follow your example. How do you get there? As with all things, pray. But also read, study, fill your mind. Find books and projects you can delight in and don’t begrudge yourself the time they take.  (See also this post on the Teacher’s Attitude)
  • Expect God to work in your students. Expect the best for them. Pray that God will work in them. If you are a Christian teacher, every child God has put in your class this year has been given to you for a reason. He is your neighbor. Know that it is God who works in him and trust that He will do so. (See also the Teacher’s Expectation)
  • Trust the things of God. Whatever your subject, from math to chemistry to history to music, the things you are putting before children are the things of God. All truth, beauty, and goodness are His. As such, they are powerful things. You find delight in them (see the first point above); let your students do so as well.
  • Don’t get between your students and what they are learning. Don’t talk too much. As much as possible let them get at the thing itself. Don’t put yourself in the way. You don’t need to be the mediator. Let them get face-to-face with the things of God.
  • You will be their teacher for a time only (even if you are the parent). It’s great to have a relationship with your students but make sure that your personality and interests are not the only motivation they have.
  • Don’t deprive young children of the things of God. Young children are great at memorizing, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they can do. Make sure you are presenting them with real ideas that their minds can begin to chew on even at a young age.
  • Don’t feel you need to dress up the things of God. Tone down the extras like videos and games. Let the inherent value of what you have to share with these children shine through. (See Interesting but not Entertaining)
  • Don’t drain the life out of your subject. Yes, these things should be inherently interesting but sometimes, honestly, we grown-ups have a knack for taking an interesting thing and making it dull. Don’t do that. Use materials that bring out the inherent joy in your subject. Use real books by real authors who love their subject. Avoid textbooks if possible, or use them sparingly. Avoid tedious repetition. Don’t provoke children with drills, busywork, mindless tasks. (See Should We Use Textbooks?)
  • Be okay with different outcomes. We are all created by God as unique persons. While the things we have to share with our students should be inherently interesting, they are not all going to respond in the same way to every subject. It is helpful again to think of education as a feast. Not everyone at the table is going to like those Brussel sprouts. The rule in our house was you have to take firsts and eat it but you don’t need to take more if you don’t want to. The same principles work here: you have to try it all; you don’t have to love it.
  • Appreciate the interests of each child. Let’s face it, our society values some subjects over others. If you have a child who seems to be interested in nothing, expand your definitions. They probably have something they like or are good at. Find it, even if it seems to have nothing to do with education. You don’t need to incorporate it in the classroom or make it a unit study. Just know that it is out there and appreciate it.
  • Education is not just a matter of what goes in. Whether we are in a school setting or not, we need the child to reproduce what he has learned on a regular basis. If you are a teacher in a school, the parents will want to see what their child has learned. If you are a homeschool parent, you may have to report to your state. In either case, you should not let these legitimate interests become your main concern. Seek methods of reproducing material which benefit the child above other interested parties.
  • Even given the same material, not every child will learn the same thing. Choose methods which encourage individuality. [3] Narration is a great choice (see Synthesizing Ideas and Three Ideas about Narration) because it asks students to tell what they know.
  • Questions with set answers — true and false, multiple choice — (apart from very objective subjects like math and spelling) are less desirable. Open-ended questions allow children to tell what they know. (We are not to compromise truth, however — there is still a right and a wrong. The point is not that whatever the child says is wonderful but that they may see something in the material which you do not.)
  • Testing should also be done as much as possible for the child’s benefit. There are ways to test which ask the child to synthesize material he has learned and thereby further his learning. Testing which asks a child to memorize and regurgitate material within a short span of time has no long-term benefit for anyone.
  • When it comes to motivators, remember that the goal is for the child to have a love of knowledge because knowledge is of God.
  • Don’t praise children too much. A well-placed word from a teacher who doesn’t normally praise is a lot more effective than constant praise. When we constantly praise, we teach children to work to please us.
  • Don’t manipulate children’s emotions. They should not be working to make us happy and they certainly should not feel that they make us sad or angry when they fail (whether that failure is due to ignorance or lack of effort).
  • External motivators (eg. stickers) are not verboten but should be rare.
  • Some level of competitiveness among classmates is natural, but it shouldn’t be something we encourage or exploit to too great an extent. (I am talking about academics here — I am perfectly okay with games that have winners and losers during recess and gym time.
  • Grades are not the enemy but they should not be the main focus. If you have to give grades and have the flexibility to do so, grade based on improvement and attitude especially in more subjective subjects (the humanities, the arts, the social sciences). [4]
  • Know that kids will fail sometimes and that’s okay. We need to know that we are not perfect. The child who puts in minimal effort should not be allowed to coast through.
  • But don’t let failure become a habit. The child who feels like he always fails will lose his desire to learn very quickly. Education should stretch us but not break us. Find ways for these children to succeed.

You may be thinking that I am taking away all that you normally do in the classroom and that your students will balk at not getting their stickers and games. So here are some ways to keep it fresh:

  • Stick to short lessons. Two short math lessons spread throughout the day may be better than one longer one.
  • Alternate kinds of learning. Don’t do one subject that is heavy on reading right after another.
  • Incorporate the arts, hands-on crafts, and physical activity. These don’t need to be tied to what is being learned (unit study style) but they allow you to break up the day and to alternate which parts of the mind (and body) are being used.

Many of the above ideas can be found in Thomas Edward Shields’ The Making and the Unmaking of a Dullard (Leopold Classic Library, 2019; reprint of original 1909 publication). If you don’t have time to read the book, you can read my notes on it here.

Because it is so important, let me end by saying once more the best thing you can do is to cultivate your own love of knowledge and to expect the best of your students. Or, to put it another way — eat your Brussel sprouts and assume that everyone else will love them too.


[1] Brussel sprouts ate actually quite good drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted. When asked, one of my kids once told the pediatrician it was her favorite vegetable. The doctor was a little surprised.

[2] It is really quite a lot like what goes on in the worship of the churches these days. We need to trust what God has given us; we don’t need to add a lot of frills from our entertainment-based culture.

[3] To quote one of my favorite authors, Frank Gaebelein: “In other words, one of the great marks of man’s uniqueness is his God-given capacity to think. Consequently, anything that diminishes our thinking tends to dehumanize us through making us less than what God created us to be.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 152]

[4] “There is a kind of comparison of one person with another, a considering of student achievement through marks, rating scales, and objective test results, that is essential to education. But necessary as all of this is, it falls far short of the ultimate concept of excellence.” [Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) p. 143]

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] In evaluating children and measuring what they have learned, we should be wary of provoking them unnecessarily with tedious exercises which are for our benefit, not theirs. (Synthesizing Ideas; Motivating Students) […]


  2. […] song on repeat // digital Vespers (from Good Friday, but perfect any time you need to lament) // motivating students // when kids won’t bow to your idols // informative regarding how COVID-19 works // Dr. Seuss […]


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