I've been giving a lot of serious thought to how to motivate students. Today I got the answer from the students themselves.
I was assigned to help supervise an extended "study hall." As you can imagine, many of the kids were texting or playing video games on their phones. But about a third of them were earnestly doing homework. Many were even helping each other out, or engaged in heated discussions.
As I circulated around the room, I asked what made them want to study and learn. This is not a scientific survey--the sample size was small and probably not representative of the population overall.
Nevertheless, there were a few answers I heard over and over again.
These are inner city kids, most of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. If this doesn't describe you, there's still a lesson here. We'll get to it.
How to motivate students with prestige
The most common answer I heard was along the lines of, "I want to be somebody," or "I'm going to go to college and become a professional."
In this kind of answer, material prosperity is implied, but it is not stated. The idea of counting somehow, having a valued profession, to "be somebody" important is what motivates students.
If you are a parent or a teacher, you might be able to use prestige, even fame and glory, as a way to motivate students. Find a way for them to be recognized for their achievements. Even if they're just a legend in their own mind, you've made an important start.
The family factor
If you are the parent of a teenager, you may be surprised to hear that at least half the students said their parents motivated them. Not through rewards or the threat of punishment. Not even by example.
A good number of students said, "My parents have made a lot of sacrifices for me. They had to struggle, and I want to be the best I can be to make it worthwhile for them."
The second most common answer was, "My parents didn't have all the advantages I did. I'm going to be the first person in my family to go to college."
Being the first is another example of fame, glory, recognition and prestige. There's also an element of honor and "giving back."
The heroic teen
If a child seems to be sometimes apathetic, full of attitude, consider this: His or her brain is still developing, and the parts of the brain that originate emotion are far ahead of those which exercise prudent thought.
When a teenager acts prudently, she is probably doing so for emotional reasons. Recognition, belonging, fame and glory play a huge role in the adolescent mind.
If you doubt this, consider how they entertain themselves. Video games where heroes and heroines rescue the world (or the universe!) from the powers of evil. Sports, where there is the chance to literally, physically become a hero. Movies that incorporate the most dramatic moments of the video games.
Inside every teen is a hero waiting for a quest. He wants to "be somebody," do right by his family, overcome obstacles and win glory.
If you can harness this power and direct it towards academic or vocational pursuits, your child could achieve success beyond your wildest dreams.