The “L” Word: Education’s greatest disease (and no, it’s not Lupus)

Hundreds of yawning, red-eyed students are crammed in pairs, stretching the school gym.  A dull hum, like distant locusts, murmurs the space as pencils scratch hundreds of little bubbles.  It’s state-test day, and there is an air of anxiety among more than just the students.  We teachers have one thought on our mind: “How are they going to perform this year?”

And then we spot them.  Those kids.  The ones who opted out of effort and are enjoying a rare, uninterrupted nap.  Their bubble sheets are bare, or randomly filled, or perhaps forming a shape (most likely a penis or a middle finger).  With a clench of the jaw, a deep exhale, and most likely an unspoken expletive, we stare in silence at the kids whose scores may destroy our performance ratings, our reputation, and our energy the next year.

One word comes to mind for such kids:


Those kids are lazy.  They are unmotivated.  They don’t care about their future.  We berate them in our head and chastise their entire identity.  But, little do we know, we are making a fatal error in doing so — one that has actually created the student who could care less about test scores.

Here is a sobering truth:

There is no such thing as an unmotivated student.

(Feel free to read that again, if your sudden scoff made you dizzy).

There are only unmotivating contexts.

Let that soak for a moment. Now, see for yourself:

. . . . .

Pop Quiz (and you thought those ended in secondary school):

Rate the scenarios below on the following scale:

(0) Psssh! I do not do this.

(1) I do this for a tangible reward or to avoid punishment.

(2) I do this so I don’t feel guilty or to impress someone.

(3) I do this because I can see purpose in doing it for my future.

(4) I do this because it is a part of my identity; it’s just who I am.

(5)  I do this for the fulfillment of the experience — I’d do it without pay or anyone around me.


1.  Staying late at work (or after class)

2.  Cleaning the toilet

3.  Taking extra classes or training related to my career

4.  Paying taxes

5.  Exercising

6.  Reading a book

7.  Donating to charity

8.  Playing chess

9.  Learning a new language

How’d you do?  Did you realize how lazy you are and how much you don’t care about your future?  Of course not.  It would be absurd to suggest that not playing chess is a sign of future unemployment, drug abuse, and unwanted pregnancy.  And yet, we are often quick to label a student’s character in such a way when he or she is unmotivated in the classroom — or the employee at work. Just because you don’t do something doesn’t mean you are a lazy person.  All it means is that the context does not motivate you.

The same is true of our students and employees.  Just because a student does not want to take a test or read a book or build a styrofoam mobile does not mean he or she is lazy.  It simply means that the context is not motivating.  And whose job is it to create motivating contexts in school?  It’s our job.  Teachers.

We teachers have a hard time accepting this sometimes.  It is easy to see how ludicrous the L-word sounds in other fields.  If no one goes to see a blockbuster movie, we may say it’s because the director or screenwriter or publicists didn’t do a good job; any of which may be true.  But, no great director has ever said, “People would have loved that movie if they weren’t so friggin’ lazy.”   Terrible sales of a product are not the fault of the consumer.  And yet, a student not reading To Kill a Mockingbird is a sign of poor character or crappy parents (or Lord help us: BOTH!).

But we’re wrong.  There is no such thing as unmotivated people.  There are only unmotivating contexts.

So, let’s consider two questions: one common and useless, one rare and powerful (more on this soon).

Useless:  How do we motivate people? (We can’t).

Useful:  How do we create contexts that are motivating? (We can.)

Over the next few posts, I’ll be arguing that our common conception of motivation is not only wrong but destructive in creating great learners, great citizens, great employees.  In the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts on the useful question above.  Think work.  Think learning.  Thing your day-to-day life.

You better comment and read the posts-to-come or I’ll tell everyone how lazy you are.


Copyright Chase Mielke, 2014


76 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting Chase. Now I am looking forward to the next post with anticipation. I always enjoy your angle on issues.

  2. Kathy says:

    As an educator that is the Awe Haw moments in kids we live for! When the content becomes meaningful to them and connections are being made.

    1. Betty says:

      Was that a joke? Awe Haw?? Aha???

  3. mkerby01 says:

    While I agree with your overall post, your comparison to movie directors is absurd. A more accurate comparison would be one with employers and employees. In that context, employers DO call employees unmotivated if they do not get their work done…and those employees then get poor performance appraisals or likely fired. In that sense, is it the employers job to motivate the workers? Not entirely. As mentioned in a different post, employees (and students) need to take responsibility for themselves. There is such a thing as truly unmotivated people. While I agree we need motivating contexts for our students, we cannot take the responsibility off our students.

    1. Dahlia Smith says:

      I am not reading that Chase is taking away student responsibility in any way. Students, like employees, will respond to leadership. As a production manager for many years I felt strongly that I had a responsibility to the people that were actually doing the production. I needed to provide training and the right tools to do the job, along with a safe, clean and non-hostile working environment. I enjoyed success in my job when I was accountable to my staff as well as my employer. I considered evaluations a “work in progress” throughout the evaluation period to avoid surprises. The progress the staff enjoyed after changing my approach to my responsibilities was astounding. A win/win. If an employer does call employees unmotivated this will be reflected in his own performance evaluation.

      1. Jason Lin says:

        The difference is that people choose their jobs, for the most part. You don’t just choose to go to school. The government has set forth a legal obligation for students enrolled in public to show up every day. As for “responding to leadership”, no one will respond to a “leader” that is simply incompetent. Not saying everyone is, but those types of people do exist and just so happen to hold leadership positions. If someone is placed in an environment they don’t necessarily choose to be in, combined with possible incompetence, is what makes students seem lazy. Also, as a student, I will say that there simply are certain things that I couldn’t care less about. Whether a student chooses to be lazy is their choice, and often times, attempting to force them to change their point of view leads to more issues.

    2. mnphysicist says:

      If an employee is not getting their work done, I’ve failed as the boss. Either I hired a dolt (which does happen, but is very rare if I’m hiring correctly) the employer/employee contexts are not compatible (again, I’ve hired wrong), or my leadership sucks (which is the most common scenario). The “personal responsibility” philosophy is for the most part an excuse for folks inability to lead… Short of the rare dolt, most folks want a sense of accomplishment, a sense of taking something on bigger than themselves, even if it is grunt work like doing coffer runs, cleaning the john, or running spreadsheets to death. A good leader will connect the drudgery must be done stuff to the bigger picture… most leaders are not good ones, and thus we have folks classed as dolts that could be shining stars if given half a chance.

      The big problem with this analogy is that it doesn’t translate to education. I have the tools to screen before an employee enters my business. I know my contexts and the limits to which I can tweak them to lead. Folks who are dolts, or are outside my sphere of leadership skill are not allowed to enter my building (or at least I try to keep them out). I’m not involved in K12, but as an outsider, its easy to see you don’t have gatekeeping as an option, and even worse, your ability to tweak contexts is much more constrained than mine is as a boss..

      1. th3bak3rman says:

        Schools do have their screening tools; they are called assessments. These assessments are given several times a year, including the beginning of the year for baseline data. (Sometimes, the child is assessed while the parents are in the office completing registration – but that’s a topic for another posting.)

        The assessments help guide teachers provide individualized instruction. Or to use your words, help us know the “contexts and the limits to which I can tweak them to lead.” But you are right, comparisons to business end there. Schools cannot choose to not hire (enroll) or fire (expel) a student simply because the student is a dolt or outside the scope of one’s teaching ability.

      2. Yardemom says:

        And the people you hire have decided that they do, in fact, want to work. Some of the kids in school that I’ve encountered are the children of teen moms (or other scenarios, of course) and there are generations of family who have almost no ambition, but mostly sit around gossiping, or doing some job just to get money for cigarettes or video games. The kids from those situations truly see no point in school, have no concept of dreaming of a future, can’t see any other thing to think of or do, and some of them can’t even imagine ever leaving this town – even to go shopping in another town. How do you motivate THOSE students? they don’t want to even correct a few things on a paper, they stop answering questions if they get 1/2-way through… it is frustrating!

    3. Timothy Fak says:

      But in an employer/employee situation, the employer is providing the motivating context in the form of the consequences that will occur if the employee doesn’t perform.

      Imagine if you knew you were going to get paid regardless of when you showed up to work or how much work you actually did. Under those circumstances, even the most conscientious of employees would become less motivated to be productive.

      Thinking back to my own school days, there was a general sense among the students that standardized test day was “goof off day” because there was no direct incentive for us to perform well. What did we care if the school didn’t perform up to scratch? It didn’t have any bearing on our grades or anything. Now, when we had to take the ACT test, that same group of kids suddenly became very motivated because our performance had a direct bearing on college admissions etc.

  4. Angie says:

    Wow. This is a great read that I will share with my student teacher tomorrow!

  5. ” Those kids. The ones who opted out of effort and are enjoying a rare, uninterrupted nap. Their bubble sheets are bare, or randomly filled, or perhaps forming a shape (most likely a penis or a middle finger). With a clench of the jaw, a deep exhale, and most likely an unspoken expletive, we stare in silence at the kids whose scores may destroy our performance ratings, our reputation, and our energy the next year.

    One word comes to mind for such kids:


    Rather presumptuous of you to assume (and you know what those assumptions can make of one-ass u me) that these students are “lazy”. I see a self centered poster here worrying about “performance ratings” or “reputation” or “energy”. How about what is right by the students and those educational malpractices that are educational standards and standardized testing are actually quite harmful to many. Should the state be in the position of rewarding some students while sanctioning others through a completely invalid process? I think not.

    Maybe, just maybe those students, having read and learned just how invalid standardized tests are, are taking a stand against those educational malpractices. I invite you to learn yourself just how invalid these educational standards and standardized testing are. Read Noel Wilson’s never rebutted nor refuted “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at:

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”
    In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. As a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it measures “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

    1. chasemielke says:

      Duane, I’m confused as to whether you read all of this blog post. The whole thesis of the blog is arguing that “lazy” is a dangerous term that should not be applied to students because no one is truly lazy, only demotivated by certain contexts. Or, maybe I’m confused by the antecedent to which “you” refers when you say, “Rather presumptuous of you to presume…” (since the post goes on to argue against labeling a student lazy).

      I know of very few teachers who actually think that standards and grades are truly motivating. Few less I know who would argue against grades and standards making motivation worse for many. The information you’ve posted may be “speaking to the choir.”

    2. Em says:

      Rather lazy of you to not read the whole article and make an idiotic comment.

      1. Lorenzo says:

        Agreed. Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

    3. Megan Kasten says:

      Considering the amount of time you must have spent on this pedantic and somewhat condescending diatribe, it is disappointing that you could not have spent an extra 2 minutes reading the entire blog post. If you do go back and read it, you might be a bit embarrassed that you carried on and on disagreeing with someone who had pretty much just made your point more succinctly, and without all of the pretense.

    4. Wow, Duane! You used a lot of your SAT words in that post and, yet, you have failed miserably at reading comprehension. The original post pointed out the problem with assumptions and suggested the useful alternative of leadership to combat perceived laziness. Now, I can get as philosophical as the next person and pull quotes that could convince readers that they don’t even exist on any meaningful plane, blah blah blah, but what will I have accomplished? A whole lot of navel gazing and pie-in-the-sky construction may be fun or even intellectually entertaining, but it isn’t very useful when you have a room full of tomorrow’s futures cycling in front of you four, five, six or more times a day. Now, I’m not 100% on board with the idea that a “motivating context” is the answer for all kids on all days. Some kids are, in fact, lazy, just as some adults are lazy. My own son is a great kid, but once every six weeks or so, he has that one day where he gets the “f**k-its” and does his own thing. The timing between those days has gotten better over the years, but it is part of his personality to occasionally buck the system. He gets in trouble (at school and at home), pays the price, moves on and his teachers all love him. That being said, I do believe that those exceptions – the truly lazy – should not hold us back from trying to find new ways to bring the other kids along. I would like to suggest that there are some kids who fall into another, more insidious category, though. I have met them, talked to them and walked away almost in tears – they are the hopeless kids, the ones who don’t even have the slightest idea of what they’d like to do later in life because they don’t see a path from here to there. They are the kids whose parents never did anything, either. On the surface, they look lazy, but a ten minute conversation with them reveals otherwise. Perhaps, a motivating context will work with those students. Ultimately, I am saying that the original post rings of pragmatic honesty, so I look forward to the next installment, while your post reeks of useless intellectualism that doesn’t present any solutions or recommendations. Or, for me to channel you, blah blah blah subjectivization blah blah blah socio-economic structure blah blah blah epistemological blah blah blah. For a more “pop culture” reference, you are that snob in the Harvard bar while Chase is asking you how ’bout them apples…

    5. Lorenzo says:

      Wow! Talk about a self-centered poster. “elucidates”… good word. Seems Copy & Paste are better friends to you than reading and comprehension, understanding context, and your own independent thinking. Here’s another good word for you… asinine… as in, your commentary is completely asinine.

    6. Elizabeth says:

      Must be great to put so much effort into a rebuttal/post that is completely unnecessary. You obviously didn’t finish reading the post lol. You must be one of those ppl who scours the internet looking for ppl to argue with….

    7. Tim says:

      Duane, it appears you agree wholeheartedly with Chase. I must say your reply is a little too high brow in context for some to absorb and is permeate with the kind of language which may alienate some of us less educated individuals which may have received lower scores on standardized tests.

      His point is that standardized testing creates a context which is amotivational and puts unreasonable pressure on students and educators alike. He opposes the labeling of students as lazy and suggests that motivational contexts are required to stimulate students to engage in the learning process. No where does he validate standardized testing.

      I did however enjoy the information you shared.


      Tim Sell

  6. David Wilson says:

    Not all contexts should be motivating. That’s life. Learning how to trudge through things that are uninspiring or whatever….that’s the event. Right? Proving that you can push through it in order to be ready for what might be a motivating context….that’s the event. Right? Practicing fundamentals is boring and repetitive. All the boring stuff done to perfection… throws on the court, the perfect hold for the kicker, perseverance through the middle portion of an endurance sporting event….bringing your binder to class, using a sharpened pencil with eraser, using loose leaf paper instead of torn from a notebook, reviewing the chapter….shall I go on? It’s all the same stuff. Not everything will be engaging and exciting. Not everything should be.

    1. Shelly says:

      As a teacher, I do my part to evoke interest in every lesson. Now, with only 6 weeks left to go, I finally hooked one my kids just 2 weeks ago into digging my lesson about the bystander effect. Before this topic, he did only what he needed to pass my class. He trudged enough to pass, and now is intrigued. All along the way, I had other students hooked and interested. It’s impossible to hook the interest of every student in every moment; I agree, that fits into the event of life. Good point 🙂

    2. Charles R says:

      I completely agree, and I’m glad you said this.

      Sometimes it’s important to do something even though you don’t enjoy it, or don’t feel motivated to do it. I don’t think it’s does students any favours to let them think that it’s somebody’s job to motivate them all the time, or that they’re entitled to slack off when performing a task if they don’t feel completely engaged in it.

    3. AB says:

      Thank you! As an educator it is incredibly beneficial for me to create systems, scenarios, and attitudes that motivate participation, best effort, etc. However, I agree that it is not my responsibility to make every expectation desirable for every child. We all do things we don’t enjoy or would rather not do, and that is part of life, whether it’s scrubbing a toilet or writing a summary. Thanks, David.

    4. John says:


    5. Timothy Fak says:

      Any context in life must be motivating in some way or people simply won’t participate. Motivating doesn’t necessarily (or even often) mean pleasant or exciting.

      There are many forms of motivation.

    6. JLord says:

      Thank you. Finally, someone who “gets it.” Most of life is boring and mundane. Time for kids to get over it.

  7. Sammy says:

    From another one of your posts:

    So, do yourself a favor: Grow a pair. No more excuses. No more justifications. No blaming. No quitting. Just pick your head up. Rip the chords out of your ears. Grab the frickin’ pencil and let’s do this.

    So, is it their fault or your fault? Seems like maybe you just like to hear yourself talk. The problem with education is people like you that think incredibly complex issues can be boiled down to silly “motivational” articles. There is no one answer to anything in education. Teachers have to be smart enough to determine what and when is necessary and this level of cognition among teachers would require a massive overhaul. The simple fact is there are many people teaching that should not be and the sad truth is… that will never be fixed.

    1. chasemielke says:

      I thought about whether I wanted to spend time responding to your comment. Since my job entails education, I figured I would highlight a few things you should maybe know before your next effort to demean someone via a blog comment.

      1. If you truly want people to see your side of things, condescending don’t create open minds. I can’t understand any other purpose to your comment, “Seems like maybe you just like to hear yourself talk.” But, if it made you feel good to say that, I guess there is at least some purpose behind it.

      2. I see what you were trying to do by quoting one of my other blog posts that discusses student ownership in learning. Your error is that your argument follows a fallacy of false dichotomy. You seem to believe that motivation is a simple teacher or student issue (which would also be an example of oversimplification which you mention disliking). Motivation does not depend solely on either a) the teacher doing the motivating or b) the student motivating him or herself. It depends on multiple factors. Teachers must find a way to create motivating contexts for students to mentally and emotionally be receptive to learning. AND, students must make certain choices whether to act or not. So, if you had taken the time to openly try to understand either blog post, you would understand that both teacher and student are a critical part of the learning process. Exploring multiple sides of the issue is a matter of seeing it as a complex process.

      3. You make an ignorant assumption in saying, “People like you who think that incredibly complex issues can be boiled down to silly ‘motivational’ articles.” Tell me: What else do you know about me as an educator? Do you know what I do on a daily basis in working with students? Training other teachers? Educating myself? Researching best practices? And yet, you oversimplify that, because I post thoughts and ideas about topics related to teacher-student relationships, I must therefore only put stock in, “Motivational blogs” to try to improve education. I suggest you develop even a small understanding of the lives you criticize before you post your next comment. One can’t have an educated discussion by bemoaning oversimplification in one sentence and then commiting the error egregiously in another.

      4. No one has posted on any of my blogs that all teachers are great teachers, nor belong in the classroom. I would agree whole-heartedly that there are people in the classroom who should not be. Experiencing that firsthand is why I went into teaching (Were you aware that I actually teach and don’t just try to change education through “motivational blogs”?). For that matter, my experience has shown that there are politicians who are ineffective at their job (and that may never change), there are doctors who are ineffective at their job (which also may never change) — even critics who aren’t very good at their jobs (which I would bet never changes).

      I’m not sure from where your frustration stems, but it’s apparent in your comment. Again, I agree whole-heartedly that education can never be fixed by one thing (which is why I post on multiple components of even one factor called motivation). I do hope that in the future you will try to get to know more who I am, what I do, and what my beliefs are before you post assumptions and condescending remarks on my work.

      1. Kathelleen says:

        Wish there was a like button here!

      2. What? You can’t post all of your thoughts, past and present, every time that you write something new? *Gasp*

      3. th3bak3rman says:

        I’m glad you replied to Sammy; otherwise I would have, though maybe not as diplomatically as you did.

  8. Laura says:


  9. Aubri says:

    I enjoyed reading this, and I really appreciate your insights and the time and thought that you put into your blog posts.

    I must disagree, though, with your statement saying that there is no such thing as unmotivated people (4ish paragraphs from the bottom). Unfortunately, there is such thing as unmotivated people who are too lazy to enter any sort of profession and earn their living as it should have been instilled in them to do so when they were younger. Then, those people expect to receive money from others for doing nothing because they do not feel obligated to work and are too lazy to look to support themselves.

    Yes, I do agree that there is no such thing as an unmotivated student (clearly the subject of the blog post and excellent commission), but I half-disagree when that statement is extended to members of society as a whole.

    1. jecolorfulheart says:

      Aubri–I think if you take time to look behind (or under) the visible actions of those folks who choose to not work and to receive money from others, you would find there IS motivation in play. It might be “spending time with family and friends” or “doing whatever I choose to do” or “wanting to just chill out”, or it could be issues of addiction or significant wounding. We (and I will include myself since I also struggle with these folks like you seem to do—even when in settings that my job is to try to help change things for their at-risk teens) too often write off motivations that we don’t understand or don’t agree with as NOT being motivated at all…

    2. Kristen says:

      Maybe “unmotivated” students or adults have additional sources that give an appearance of unmotivation. How did they get there? Have they shut-down? I try to be very careful about judging attitudes since they are often a mask covering a lot of pain.

  10. AlisonH says:

    Lupus. From the Latin word for the wolf that some doctor in the 1800’s thought it looked like those of us who have it had been bitten by.

    1. Kathelleen says:

      just wish there was a like button here.

    2. Dianne Schmiesing says:

      glad someone else corrected spelling of “Lupus”

      1. chasemielke says:

        Thank you both for the catch! I appreciate you letting me know 🙂

  11. Kathelleen says:

    I am one for observing people. I have also learned from taking some classes and readings, as well as having children of my own, people are all different in every aspect. People do not learn the same way. Schools has this tendency for putting all students on a pedistool-sp?. And that is what a student should be, but Teachers and parents all need to look at one another as individual that learns differently. So Chase, what you have written from two of your articles that I have read, I am like wow! You get it. If teachers can think “outside” the box and work and take notice of their students, it would feel rewarding when that student success, because you have succeed. I would love to find a teacher that can turn my last child who is my third boy- which thinks differently than girls, who is a above proficient State Exam Tester too a great student that he has bottled up inside- because he does not seem that motivated enough to get the grades he should be getting, would be a great reward for my son, the teacher themselves, and me as a parent (with my husband). That is something I long to see.

    1. th3bak3rman says:

      Kathleen, what you call putting on a pedestal is most likely setting high expectations for students. There is nothing wrong with letting students know that we hope that they try their best.

  12. MeaganB says:

    I absolutely love this post. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I am a college student in the second year of the education program as I am passionate about becoming a teacher. This post sums up my purpose in pursuing education. I can’t wait to make the difference and impact I’m sure you make every single day. You are a well-spoken individual, thank you again for this post.

  13. Donal Stones says:

    I do like your article and can agree with it up to a point. I do believe that we as teachers need to create motivating contexts to help our students learn, and doing a good job of this will help many students to find motivation. Also in general just caring about students and what they really want and need in life is a great motivator.
    My breaking point is that I do think that at some level students need to learn to do hard things, “Just because it is who they are.” I am a teacher, and I love my job often, but not every day. If I only did a good job on the days I felt truly motivated to do so, how does that affect my employer, how does that affect my students, and how does that affect me? Not every situation in life is going to be motivating externally and sometime students need to learn to get it done and do it well even when they don’t really feel like it. Life is beautiful and hard. Do I want my students to only be able to deal with the beautiful parts and shut down on the days when someone didn’t make it fun for them.
    Too often people feel entitled to things just because they showed up, or because whether or not they showed up yesterday they made it today. Trophies for everyone is great to a point but at some point they have to realize that the hard work is it’s own reward and that to he or she that plants comes the harvest. The planting is not always fun, and even the crops sometimes fail, but that doesn’t mean that I quit trying because the situation just didn’t really make me motivated.
    Lazy is defined as “disinclined to activity or exertion : not energetic or vigorous.” Being disinclined to exertion means that when it gets hard you don’t want to do it. Yes I can do my best to make it interesting but at some point a student has to decide that some things matter and they should be motivated whether or not it’s fun. How is it that I teach my students that when it gets hard, that’s when doing it is worth it and the payoffs are greater and in general a person that will go the extra mile to do the hard stuff is more valued as an employee or team member or even company boss if I’m always saying, “well my song and dance wasn’t great today so it’s my fault that you didn’t get anything done.”
    I’m sorry if it’s too negative, but I don’t want a co-worker that only does his job when he is interested in doing so: “Yeah that guys a great teacher on Wednesday, but you know the other days of the week he just has a hard time finding the motivation to get it done. Maybe we should figure out how to make it more fun for him on those days.”
    I realize my comment is a little disjointed and may have some flaws to it but hopefully without breaking it in little pieces and picking at small errors you get my gist.

    1. chasemielke says:

      I absolutely get the gist and am in full agreement that we can’t always rely on perfect contexts in order to do work. My other blog post on “What Students Really Need to Hear” speaks to the student side of the motivation spectrum. This post speaks to the teacher end — to those moments when it is easy for us to label a student lazy and give up without first introspectively analyzing how WE are also a part of the motivation equation.

  14. Kristen says:

    Sometimes school is hard for someone from day one. “Keep trying, do your homework, if you just work harder” are pounded into them from age five on. If they rarely see and feel success due to a learning disability should we really expect them to maintain motivation for years to come? Students, human beings for that matter, shutdown. They shutdown when they experience too much pain or negativity. And then people judge and label “lazy.”

  15. Brenda D says:

    Thank you from a Mom! My oldest falls into this category. He is in 8th grade & most things in school are not motivating to him so he struggles. I know when he is working on something that interests him and has motivating context as you say as he does not struggle so much and you see the difference in his attitude. His grades are better, etc. It’s just hard trying to find the motivation in the stuff that doesn’t interest him and he is not being motivated in school with.

    I was also one of those kids when I was in school when it came to Language Arts. I had a great teacher in 11th grade when we started reading Shakespeare. I struggled thru Language Arts all the prior grades so you would think Shakespeare would come hard, but it was just the opposite. Something about it was motivating to me, We were only to read so far each night and then there was discussion in class the next day. However, I couldn’t out it down & I was by no means a reader… I spoke to my teacher about it and he knew how I struggled & thought I couldn’t possibly be understanding it, so he asked me some questions & realized I was. Rather than hold a student, who otherwise had a hard time finding motivation in his class, back he gave me permission to read as far as I wanted & to continue on to the other books as I had finished. He would test me when I was to the points where testing would be done and I could continue as long as I did well with the tests. It has been 27 years and I still remember this because it motivated me!

  16. leemerrick1 says:

    And here I thought it was going to be the fact we aren’t allowed to tell students that we love them…

  17. Linda says:

    How to you get someone to be motivated in life? I am a step-mother to a 20 year old who has quit school, quit work and decided that living on welfare ($400/month) is the way to go. This way of living is complete insanity and ultimate laziness. I wish he would just get it. Get life. No matter what we seem to do or say, he doesn’t want to work hard at anything. It’s so frustrating because we want him to succeed, but he needs to do it himself because no amount of help from anyone seems to work. It’s so frustrating. How do you get someone to really understand that life is not about just playing video games all day and getting high because at this point this is pretty much all he does. He lives with some friends in an apartment and they really don’t do much of anything.

  18. Amber says:

    I admire your willingness to open yourself to all kinds of comments by posting your thoughts about a teacher’s role in motivating students to learn. Everything I’ve read (and I did read your post about “What Students Need to Hear”) leads me to believe that you are a truly caring and competent teacher. I have been a teacher for many years, and I struggle with this issue every time I teach a class: How can I motivate my students to learn this? But, although I do my best and try every technique I know, I do not always motivate all of my students in all of my classes (high school and community college classes) all of the time. I think that is something that teachers must accept, or they will burn out.

    My job as an educator is to educate. If I am reduced to a performer of some kind – someone whose job it is to make learning fun, easy, or even motivating – I cannot focus enough on EDUCATING. Educating oneself is not necessarily something one does for fun. It is not meant to be easy. And, just as your other essay points out, students need to take a role in their own educations, and it needs to be just as central a role as that of the teacher.

    Our job is to teach students to no longer need us for learning. They must become their own teachers. If we don’t create a “context” that is like real life, but rather one that is always “motivational,” students will get used to that and believe that life is like that. Then they will fail in real life. (As an aside, I don’t believe that situation is a real fear because no teacher could keep up that level of motivation every class of every day for 30+ years.) But I digress. Basically it boils down to this: If we don’t present learning as its own reward, it won’t be perceived as rewarding.

  19. Lauren Ayers says:

    It’s not often that a metaphor is so apt… but just as sugar in the gas tank will ruin an engine, so too sugar in kids will ruin their capacity to control impulses and remember useful information they hear in class. The kids C. Mielke teaches are eating the “free” (we taxpayers pay for it, which was once a good idea) breakfast and lunch which has become a high-profit business model that gleefully follows the almost 100% misguided FDA Food Pyramid (that morphed into My Plate, and I’m not sure what it’s called now) that says avoid butter and bacon and eat lots of carbs, and ‘a little sugar won’t hurt’ (that’s like telling a heroin addict that ‘a little heroin won’t hurt.’) See the Before and After hand writing samples of a child who got DHA and EPA at

  20. Tanya H. says:

    Great. I interrupted an ‘exam results analysis’ meeting recently to ask a colleague not to use ‘lazy’ as an observation. She asked what the politically correct term would be. I said it’s not about being politically correct, but about taking care of the teachers. If we are not effective because ‘the students are lazy’ then we are lost. What can we do? Be cynical, angry, get a new job?
    If we consider that there is a problem in the curriculum or the way we are teaching, then we have somewhere to go. There are actions we can take. Work out what is the missing prior knowledge that leaves them feeling helpless, look for ways to stop dominating them with top-down instructions, or … there are all kinds of things you can do to attack effectiveness if it’s your problem. It’s a call for creativity.
    Also, for my personal context, I’m a mother of youngish kids. I’ve never met a lazy baby. Kids HUNGER to learn. Stuff gets in the way.
    When my colleagues got that I meant I want them to have power, they agreed to cut ‘lazy students’ from the analysis.

  21. Oz_Mike says:

    My first question to my students at the beginning of each year in each of my classes is -“what is my job?” They usually reply – To Teach us.. I ask them “what is your job?” They usually reply with “To be taught.” I explain to them that there is no magic marker that teachers get issued, with which we magically “teach”. Instead My job is to “help you learn” and your job is “to learn”.
    I remind my students that learning is an active not passive enterprise. There is also an important part of the puzzle not mentioned – the parents. The student’s education is a collaboration of Parents/Student/Teacher. All three must buy into the education process for success to occur. Without any one of this trinity not committed there will be limited success.
    I am a teacher with 37 years classroom experience at levels from 8 to 12 and Vocational education. I mainly teach senior Maths and IT. I started out as an Earth Science teacher.

    While it is important for teachers to try and make each lesson interesting or fun or relevant or a combination of all three but it is not practical to engage all students all the time for a variety of reasons already noted in other posts. Some students come from backgrounds where education is neither valued or considered useful. Some students live in environments of need or fear. Maslow tells us that unless base needs of shelter/food/love are not met then learning becomes secondary to these needs..
    Teachers need to recognise that we cannot reach all students – we do the best we can with the time and resources we have with the students who present in front of us. That is the reality of teaching. I love teaching but you will burn out if you try to be all things to all students and blame yourself if you can’t be.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    I’ll definitely be reading the follow ups for this! I have 2 years of teaching experience, have taken 3 years off, and plan to reenter the classroom this fall. I find the task of motivating 125 individual students (with completely different lifestyles, interests, and value systems) daunting and even scary (though I have come to the conclusion that it is my responsibility). This is discouraging to me. But during my time off, I’ve managed a fast food restaurant – working with many school aged kids. And I think I’ve stumbled upon something: I think it has to do with relationships. Though I’m not sure how to make that work practically with so many students!

  23. th3bak3rman says:

    To anyone responding who is NOT a teacher (or at least working in a school in some capacity), please keep in mind that what is taught and how it is taught is going to be different than when you were in school. If you are part of my generation (I am close to 50), we sat at desks all day and did the work assigned. There were no station rotations, student-selected cooperative learning teams, or pizza parties for meeting certain goals. We sat in our seats and did the work assigned. Everyone in class did the same work. The only motivation was, “Do it because I said so.”

    Over time, students are now seen as individuals, and learning has become more and more student-centered. Teachers work very hard to come up with innovative ways to capture and keep students’ attention. As a teacher, I can tell you that this is far from easy. While <> may not have elaborated in the main post, he did stress in several of his replies that teachers have a job to motivate students, but students also have a\the responsibility to step up and take ownership of their learning. This has been a responsibility of students no matter what generation. The difference with today’s youth is that they are given more rights and privileges as well.

    If you are not in education, please continue to read the articles, posts, and discussions regarding schools and education. A lot of worthwhile debates can be found online. Just remember when you try to put yourself in any situation, that your school experiences may not be the same as what is being described.

  24. dirtdaubber says:

    You can lead a horse to sparkling water. You can flavor it, and add color. You can hold their heads under until they drown and they still don’t HAVE to choose to drink it – even when they are thirsty. I teach the fun classes – art and technology, so when I also teach English and history, I KNOW how to make the learning experiences real-to-life, contextual and engaging. Some still choose to opt out. It happens. I do reach more than most teachers do, and am always surprised when I mention a student’s name who just accomplished something in my class and another teacher cringes. But I don’t reach them all. Nobody does. Does not stop me from trying.

  25. Karen says:

    Why are none of the pop quiz answers “Because it needs to be done”? If I only did things that I found intrinsically motivating I would be learning a foreign language, reading a book and excercising, because I like those things. But I clean my toilet because it needs to be done…otherwise it would be really gross. Likewise, a lot of my schooling was very interesting to me, but I worked hard at and completed Linear Algebra because it needed to be done…or I couldn’t get my degree to get a job I enjoy.

  26. MissFit says:

    your comment on how we cannot motivate people , only create motivating contexts seriously sparked my interest… what are you thought on the process of Motivational Interviewing?

    1. chasemielke says:

      I am NOT familiar with motivational interviewing . . . But now I have some new fun to read! Any suggested resources?

      1. MissFit says:

        There are several great sites for use in specific areas i.e. health care , education, parenting etc. is great place to start along with resources through SAMHSA and

        Let me know what you think! It’s all about assessing people’s readiness for change and acknowledging their role on permanent change

  27. Dave Keys says:

    Same as it ever was. “School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me.” ~Albert Einstein of his largely failed formal education. His success was achieved despite the educational system of his day. We’re not really far from the original Prussian educational system that was then designed to output ideal citizen soldiers. The soldier aspect is far less emphasized in today’s system but the ubiquitous citizen is heralded more than ever. Plug and Play People is what the system is designed to output. If they can tolerate school, then they will be able to tolerate the corporate system as well for years on end.

    The context of motivation is, unfortunately, being wrested away from local districts and teachers more than ever. Federalization of the education system via Common Core or any other name-du-jour is an enemy of learning.

  28. Jim Hilliard says:

    Students ARE lazy and stupid. No, I’m not namecalling I’m stating facts. Facts that we are not allowed to state because allegedly someone will be offended, but if we don’t face the facts we are missing the big picture. Students are “lazy”, because they haven’t gotten enough sleep. While some will stay up late playing x-box, others are kept up by siblings, parents or their environment. Students are also lazy because of poor nutrition. I would always poll my students and usually half of them had no breakfast at all, then another large fraction ate something with no nutritional value. Students are stupid because of environmental toxins. There are mercury warnings for pregnant woman on tuna cans but all seafood has mercury and it builds up in your system and is passed on to your offspring. You can say that mercury inhibits cerebral development or you can just say stupid. In addition exposure to diesel particulates, cleaners, insecticides, weed-killers etc. all in combinations that have NEVER been tested, really do affect the mental functioning of children. Usually poor children more that rich children. If we don’t deal with these problems we will never be able solve the others.

  29. thalanthalas says:

    Hello Chase,
    As someone who is getting an undergraduate in teacher education I find your blog to be extremely insightful. I thoroughly enjoy reading through it and looking at the different posts. I try and read most of the comments but seem to run out of time between my college duties. If you have already answered my question I apologize in advance.

    One of the issues we talk a lot about in my education classes is the term Learned Helplessness. I realize that this is not exactly laziness but this seemed like an appropriate place to ask. How do you motivate those student’s who have developed learned helplessness in the classroom to try doing the work before immediately asking for help? Along with that how do you continue to motivate them throughout the assignment to try each and every step on their own before jumping to the conclusion “I can’t do it.”?

    Thank you,

    1. chasemielke says:

      Hi Thalanthalas,

      Thank you for the collaboration on this post. Learned Helplessness is a MAJOR factor in the students with whom I work. By high school, much of this psychology has been ingrained in their brain. Thankfully, a lot of times it can be reversed with a lot of hard work, support, and coaching.

      One of the most important things I must do to help this process is to build a relationship with the student. I need to work hard to help them understand that, (1.) I care about them as people and not just students, (2.) I believe in them no matter what, and (3.) I understand that their lives and their challenges are not minor, immature, or insignificant. Only after developing a trusting relationship do I truly feel like I have permission to be real and honest with them.

      After that, it is a matter of educating them on learned helplessness. Many students simply do not understand what it looks like, why it matters, or what to do about it. They may be in environments that have accelerated their feelings of helplessness or that have modeled pessimistic responses to adversities. I actually teach my at-risk students about this concept, along with explanatory style (Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism is a great resource).

      From the point of understanding, then it has to be about identifying and applying the ideas. We look at examples of people who have overcome adversities as well as those who have succumbed to learned helplessness. Looking at other people first helps us speak objectively so students don’t feel confronted too soon. And then, it is a tireless, constant check-in (usually one-on-one — calling out students for learned helplessness in front of their peers can destroy the trusting relationship) to debrief moments where learned helplessness happened. We discuss why it happens, what resulted, and what could be a different choice. So long as they trust that I have the best of intentions and that I am here to coach them, my students have greatly benefited from these talks.

      Lastly, we teachers have to help them celebrate and see the benefit in the small steps along the way. So often we only acknowledge growth when we see it on test scores or completed assignments. But, for students feeling helpless, even the smallest of effort is a huge step for them. I have acknowledged D minuses (sometimes even less) with students to help them realize that their effort is creating growth.

      It is not a perfect process, nor does it work for every student every time. But, I have seen some major transformations with students in this way. I hope this helps!

  30. MusicTeacherBrian says:

    First, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts as well as the commentary about your posts. Keep up the great, thought provoking work!

    Second, the one thing that gets under my skin is people (parents, students, non-teachers) who think they know how to be a teacher just because they were a student. They will never know what it’s like to be “on the other side of the desk.” Even as a second year teacher, I’m constantly amazed at how much different it is to actually be an educator. Weather they understand this concept or not, parents are the first educators of our students. They set the precedent.

    Summer is near!!!

    1. Oz_Mike says:

      Not being critical – just being a teacher. “Whether” as against weather as in Summer is near!!. I make grammatical errors too. We all do.

    2. Oz_Mike says:

      I totally agree with your statement that parents are the first educators of their children. If they value education then their children will also value education . If the parents are life long learners their children will most likely be also. The first five years are the most important. I do not advocate” hothousing” children but spending quality time, playing and reading with toddlers will set them up well for success in life. Spoil them with love in their first 5 years and the chances of having rebellious adolescents will be much reduced. I would also recommend having children learn (a) a language other than English (b) a musical instrument and (c) a team sport will also increase the chances of having a well balanced adult. My wife and I have 4 fine young men, we are proud to call our sons as proof of our own philosophy for child rearing.

  31. Reblogged this on Of Words and Weirdness and commented:
    The G word hits me. Guilt.

  32. Joan says:

    Reblogged this on Perceptive and commented:
    Some teachers lack the passion in teaching. Or maybe they’re too tired out by other things like administrative duties.

  33. JLord says:

    A very interesting take on motivation. Unfortunately, as the potential future employer of these young people, sometimes I have to tell folks, “you have to do it because it’s your J-O-B and if you want to remain employed and with a paycheck, you will do this.” Of course, I don’t use exactly those words, but that’s the idea. And if they don’t want to do their job, then that’s fine, too. Just understand the consequences of not doing what you’re paid for might be not having a job and, therefore, not getting a paycheck.

    As a student, attending class is your job and the consequence of not doing your job might be not getting “paid” in the form of an acceptable grade. Which might mean not getting into the college of your choice. Or not getting a job upon graduation. It’s all about cause and effect; accountability, responsibility, and consequences.

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