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FREW Consultants Group        
Thursday, March 14 2019

Motivating Students – What Drives Them?

Please go to the Resource Page, Frew Consultants Group for a copy of Chapter 2 ‘Human Needs and Drives’ from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ for a detailed description of my model of human needs and drives.

It has long been the ambition of teachers to understand how to motivate their students and apply that theory.  There has been a history of attempts to present a model that explains this phenomenon.  The most successful being Maslow’s who presents a hierarchical model.  He argues people can only pursue higher, more complex endeavours after their more basic drives are satisfied.  Maslow holds that it is only when lower drives linked to survival are satisfied, that humans could reach self-actualization, the highpoint of development.  I agree, in a limited sense that we can only seek ‘self-actualization’ when we have satisfied more basic drives.

My theory reflects our tri-part brain, that is we have three relatively distinct parts of the brain that reflect the evolution of our species.  The lower part focuses on the maintenance of our physical survival and is often referred to as the reptilian brain because reptiles’ cognitive development hardly progresses from this point.  The next level is referred to as the social brain and this developed as our species learned to live in cooperative groups to increase their chances of survival.  The last is our thinking brain, the area of development that is behind the dominance of our species.  It is in this region we can make predictions into the future based on previous experience allowing us to plan ahead.  It is this last part of the brain that we need our students to bring to the classroom.

It must be remembered that the brain is at the centre of all motivation and all drives are underpinned by our need to survive and reproduce.  This is inspired by Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, ‘The Selfish Gene’.

The following are the major points of my model:

The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied.  When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance.  Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens.  If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on.  In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.

The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:

Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically composed

Secondary Drives - our need for emotional regulation is controlled in the limbic system

Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes

A person’s motivation will be focused on dealing with that area that is generating the most stress (i.e. that part of the brain that looks after our needs).  For example, if you are out of breath your dominant motivation will be to get oxygen to survive.  If you are excluded from your peer group your limbic system will be engaged to return to the group.

Learning is the result of trial and error in generating behaviours that assist the reduction of the stress and return us to a state of equilibrium.  When we find a way of achieving this we repeat that action and through repetition our brain develops a ‘neural wiring’ or memory that allows us to quickly repeat the chosen behaviour when the same conditions occur.

The easy conclusion would be that our most powerful drive would be to physically survive.  But, unfortunately the many people who commit suicide make this statement untrue, they deliberately kill themselves.  Suicide is most often the result of emotional problems and the source of these is in the limbic system.  My argument is that our behaviour is driven where the most stress or distress exists.  I will also contend that our mortality depends on both our physical and emotional status and so will have primacy over any tertiary drive. 

Finally, we can only fully access our tertiary brain when the lower parts of the brain are in relative equilibrium.  That is if we want our students to fully concentrate on our lessons it is important that they are reasonably comfortable.

So, what are the consequences of these ‘fundamentals’?  In the classroom the teacher’s goal is to have the student ‘learn’ to respond to a set of circumstances.  For instance, if the lesson is on how to solve simultaneous equations we have to have the child stressed enough to be motivated to learn how to do this.  At first the presentation of this problem should make the student ‘uneasy’ a condition that could be described as curiosity.  I don’t think I would be alone thinking I could count the number of students who would jump at the opportunity to learn about these equations; I could name these students on one hand. Teachers need other ways to motive their students to be ‘curious’ about the classroom’s ‘simultaneous equations’ (in the next Newsletter I will continue this example hopefully giving you help in doing this).

What is important is that for the student to even give these intellectual problems their attention, they need to be in a relatively state of equilibrium in their physical and emotional worlds. 

In comparison to much of the world it is easy to assume our children come to school with their physical needs fairly satisfied.  Every night, on the ‘news’ you see children starving in areas of drought or in the many war zones.  It is easy to see how these children would be unable to learn such complex problems as solving our simultaneous equations, they just want to survive.  However, in every school there will be students who have missed their breakfast, are suffering an illness or believing that when they get home they will receive a belting from their father. 

Of course, bullying is a problem for all schools and if your student is the subject of a physical threat the resulting fear/stress will take their attention away from the lesson.  We can’t assume their physical needs are satisfied and if not, their attention will be on relieving this stress in preferences to studying maths.

A more likely distraction from the cognitive lesson would be a deficit in the student’s emotional world.  As mentioned above bullying is a potential stressor in the physical world but it is just as distracting in the child’s social world.  The fear of rejection is just as life threatening as a physical threat.  Studies have shown that the very same areas of the brain are activated when people are either physically threatened or socially excluded.  Just being a child is a tough time as it is the time children learn social behaviours and this learning is a result of their being stressed.  If this is occurring in the classroom, the student will focus on getting the emotional state back into equilibrium; the equations can wait. 

In secondary schools the drive to reproduce begins and that produces another set of ‘stressors’ that will distract students.

When you consider the number of possible distractions a child can experience it is no wonder teachers face a most complex task.  To address a lot of the physical and emotional problems an individual student may face is beyond the teacher’s capacity, they are faced with up to thirty of these individuals with all their experiences. In fact, in most cases they won’t even know these problems exist. 

When they are known, or the potential is understood schools can help.  For instance, the school can have, as many do a breakfast club to cater for those students who are hungry or to reduce levels of bullying provide a strong, effective school anti-bullying policy. 

But, the thing the teacher and the school can do is provide an environment that is supportive and reliable, one of the most important factors of a successful classroom or school is the level of trust.  When students are at school, in a classroom where they are safe and secure they, and us teachers have access to their cerebral cortex and together complex learning can take place. 

Our newsletters, in the blog and our books are predominantly about building such an environment.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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