It’s part of the zeitgeist right now: the lamentations of how the new generation “just doesn’t seem to care.” 

It’s a haunting refrain that resonates with schoolteachers dealing with the disengagement of students who appear unmoved by, perhaps, the perceived gravity of their upcoming exams; on the other side of that spectrum, some kids sickened, instead, with the stress of the pressure. 

A burning question that underlies all of this: how can we motivate them to do more?

Or in other words, as it has come to mean, how do we push them further into achievement under the guise of positive reinforcement?

Motivation—it’s a term we hear a lot, especially when it comes to our kids’ education. But behind it all, there’s often so much stress and pressure. Imagine your child sitting at their desk, pencil poised over a test paper, heart pounding, hands clammy. 

What’s pushing them forward in that moment? Is it a genuine curiosity for learning, or is it the fear of falling short?

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment and acknowledge how often we as a society have normalised resorting to tactics rooted in fear rather than inspiration. Exams become battlegrounds where success is measured not by understanding but by avoidance of failure. Grades morph from tools of assessment into instruments of coercion–with a heavy, unavoidable air of keeping students in line. 

Well, it’s no wonder why they “don’t seem to care.” Schools are creating environments ripe for that response!

“We remove autonomy, we damage intrinsic motivation,” this is something said by Dr Naomi Fisher in critically examining the system’s fixation on external incentives instead of nurturing the innate passion for learning that burns within every child. But it’s this misguided attempt at producing motivation that extinguishes this flame. Time and time again we’ve seen how kids have to be motivated in precisely the way schools expect out of them for it to count, and so often is mental health sacrificed at the altar of performance and grades. 

The deeper we dive beyond the happy, shiny, outward concept of motivation, the more we see how in mainstream practice, it takes kids further away from building an internal sense of value and more toward a place of distress that informs the way they learn. 

The ramifications of this approach are far-reaching, of course. As school students navigate external expectations, that internal flame of curiosity dims, with inevitable indifference taking its place. Stickers and certificates lose their allure, replaced by a hollow sense of obligation. The pursuit of academic success becomes a joyless endeavor, devoid of meaning or purpose.

It’s clear: the consequences of this approach are guaranteed to extend far beyond the classroom. In a society fixated on success at all costs, the threat of failure looms large. We push students to the brink, sacrificing their mental and physical well-being in the name of achievement. Stress levels soar, cortisol courses through their veins, and yet we expect them to soldier on, driven by a relentless pursuit of perfection. It’s enough to make even adults tired, let alone young people still in their most formative years. Sometimes it’s as though we’re hard-pressed to push them into a state of jadedness early–and we’ve succeeded.

Still, despite the wealth of research highlighting the importance of intrinsic motivation, schools remain painfully entrenched in outdated practices, clinging to standardised assessments, for one, while relegating curiosity to the sidelines in favour of conformity–and at a cost.

At Imagine If, we’ve understood a fundamental truth: that motivation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a complex web woven with a myriad of intrinsic and extrinsic threads. Mainstream educational institutions, however, often prioritise the latter, inundating learners with a barrage of rewards and sanctions to elicit compliance. But beneath the surface, a deeper longing awaits—a yearning for autonomy and belonging that we can no longer avoid for our children’s sake. 

In response to mainstream schooling (and society at large)’s obsession with avoiding failure, we overlook another fundamental truth: that failure is not the end, but the beginning. It’s through failure that we learn, grow, and evolve. It’s the spark that ignites progress. Why must we shy away from it, viewing it as a mark of inadequacy rather than an opportunity for growth?

In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling motivation, we need to resist the temptation to double down on extrinsic incentives. Instead, we need to empower learners to find their own intrinsic motivation—to embrace failure as an opportunity for growth, rather than a mark of inadequacy (the way we see it, such a thing shouldn’t even be possible). 

Breaking away from this cycle of fear and stress starts with a shift in perspective—and recognising that failure isn’t something to be feared, but embraced, for one. We need an overhaul of our definition of success so that we can finally start moving away from arbitrary benchmarks and towards a more compassionate, yet effective, view of achievement, for two.

But most importantly, it requires compassion—for ourselves and our kids. We’re all human, after all, and we all make mistakes. We’re meant to. Instead of beating ourselves up over failures, let’s celebrate them as signs of courage and resilience. An environment where fear takes a backseat to curiosity, and where motivation comes from a genuine love of learning will take our children so much further.

Dr Fisher also leaves us with a warning: “Extra pressure will make their problems worse, not better[…] Human motivation is not just about consequences. Learning is far more complex than that. Avoiding punishment (and chasing rewards) is actually a poor reason to do anything.”

True motivation cannot–shouldn’t–be coerced; it has to be cultivated. It thrives in environments rich with opportunities for exploration and self-discovery, where learners are empowered to chart their learning journey. We find this to be the essence of education—that it’s not a conveyor belt of information, but a dynamic landscape where curiosity reigns, with endless opportunities to nurture that curiosity. 

It’s more than just possible–it’s already here.