Faculty Development Center

Freedom as Motivation


“Unless the pupils are continually sustained by the evocation of interest, the acquirement of technique, and the excitement of success, they can never make progress, and will certainly lose heart.”

There you have it— the prescription for student success from one of the Grand Masters of education, Alfred North Whitehead (1929, p. 38). Of course, there’s much more to what he said in The Aims of Education, a collection of lectures and essays first published in 1929. But in an elegant phrase or two Whitehead reveals the process and the affective and cognitive parts of learning. Interest, technique, and success or, from another perspective, motivation, disciplined learning, and assessment.

What creates motivation in a student or in any of us? The literature is voluminous and sometimes inspiring. The contrast is drawn between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, between external rewards and punishments and the upwelling joy of discovery. Whitehead’s trenchant observation is that “Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension. You may endeavor to excite interest by means of birch rods, or you may coax it by the incitement of pleasurable activity. But without interest there will be no progress” (p. 31).

Where does the interest come from and how can we fan that flame? The general take on motivation is that it’s there—we just need to know where to look and how to release it. Raymond Wlodkowski says “Motivation is the natural human capacity to direct energy in pursuit of a goal” (1999, pp. 7-8). The approach is like that of an amateur electrician: connect the right wires and the lights will come on. It might take several tries and rude shocks, and the process might blow a few bulbs, but once the connection is made it can be maintained.

But motivating students is far from simple. We don’t exactly know all the influences on motivation nor can we always accurately track the line from motivation to behavior. Whitehead notes that, “It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative” (p. 35). That’s the Catch-22: as soon as we try to harness the interest all the energy sags but without direction the interest itself soon dissipates. A balance can be found, said Whitehead, between freedom and discipline. The student begins in wonder and freedom—Whitehead called it ‘romance’— proceeds to a disciplined ‘precision’ and gradually achieves ‘generalization,’ the ability to weave the details into broad principles of application.

That is the process he advocates from elementary school to university but he also sees it built in to every lesson and unit along the way. Romance. . . . precision. . . . generalization. The joy of discovery. . . . the precision of the facts. . . the application to general principles. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-off end of education,” he says. “The pupils must be continually enjoying some fruition and starting afresh—if the teacher is stimulating in exact proportion to his success in satisfying the rhythmic cravings of his pupils” (p. 19).

While Whitehead cursed the ‘dullards’ who would crush wonder in the student, he was equally stern with those who shoveled dead facts on students in hopes that the sheer weight of knowledge would benefit them. “A certain ruthless definiteness is essential in education. I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. . . . Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it” (p. 36).

I read those words years ago in graduate school but they went right over my head. Concerned as I was to grasp facts, knowledge, the whole load at once, I missed the implications. I reread Whitehead recently and his words went right through me. I’d like to do over every class I taught in which I quelled wonder in favor of precision or pushed students to application before they had grasped the tools of precision and knowledge.

Can we motivate students? No, not if they aren’t interested. Can we interest them? Yes, if we connect our interests to theirs, show them what can be done, and let them do it.

Our role is simple says Michael Theall: we are “to create situations in which others provide their own motivation to succeed” (1999, p. 1). Whitehead agreed, “But for all your stimulation and guidance the creative impulse towards growth comes from within, and is intensely characteristic of the individual” (p. 39).

If we build it well they will come with eagerness, each in their own way.

Theall, M. (1999). Editor’s Notes. In Michael Theall (Ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 1-3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: Macmillan Company.
Wlodkowski, Raymond J. (1999). Motivation and Diversity: A Framework for Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 7-16. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.