Developing Motivation For Lifelong Learning

Helping people of all ages feel interested and excited about learning
is one of the most valuable gifts one can offer

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 40
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Children are naturally curious explorers. Infants search their environment to make sense of it. Toddlers ramble awkwardly but with determination, pushing and pulling everything in sight to find out what "it" does. Parents know that the very young inhabit a galaxy filled with wonder and have a voracious appetite for learning.

But while motivation to learn is an in-born capacity, eventually it becomes a personality characteristic largely determined through the process of learning. Children literally learn to be interested in math, fascinated by science, and intrigued with art. They can also learn to be interested in drugs, fascinated by violence, and intrigued with gambling. The motivation to learn does not disappear, but it can develop in ways that lead young people to better themselves and society – or not.

Children who possess a strong motivation to learn have a future blessed with discovery, opportunity, and contribution. They have a natural bent to do those things that will lead to occupational success in the 21st century and benefit the positive evolution of society. People who possess motivation to learn may find external barriers of circumstance and prejudice – but they are not their own enemies, and they are the most fit to learn ways to overcome such obstacles. They are the most likely to be capable of creativity and excellence because the best in science, scholarship, or art cannot be coerced from an unwilling heart.

This kind of learner is graced with a perspective that makes the difficult desirable. Learning is often extremely difficult and risky. We may not be able to learn something well, and we often do not know this until we have tried for some time without apparent success. However, continuing attempts and dogged perseverance often precede great discoveries (Salk and the polio vaccine) as well as everyday academic progress (successful writing). Diligence and endurance within a framework of love for learning enoble the human spirit.


Culture * Every ethnic group has stated and implied values regarding learning in the academic or traditional sense. These values are transmitted through such avenues as the dominant religion, the myths and folklore of the culture, political legislation for education, the status and pay of teachers, and the expectations of parents. Those societies which make the education of children the highest of economic and social priorities greatly enhance the development of motivation to learn among their younger members.

The Family * Studies of well-motivated, successful students reveal that they come from effective families. Among the more salient characteristics of these families are: a feeling of control over their lives; a view of hard work as a key to success; high expectations for children; a view of the family as a mutual support system; frequent contact with teachers; and an emphasis on spiritual growth. Such habits and values remain true for single- and two-parent households and for families with working and non-working mothers.

School * Effective teachers frequently share parallel traits with effective families. They are enthusiastic about students learning their subject, and students feel safe with them and know that with effort they can learn and complete assignments. They know that these teachers will not reject them because their grades and scores are less than those of someone else.

Learners * Learners are not passive. There is a give and take between the learners and their families, teachers, and cultural institutions. As in a conversation, learners actively influence what teachers or parents will do next and are influenced by their responses.

The wisdom of Johann von Goethe suggests a clear path: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being." Nurturing the following perceptions in children or adults will allow those who already love learning – as well as those within whom only a spark of such an ideal exists – to continue their evolution toward a more fully realized embrace of motivation to learn.

  • Valuing the way something is done more than the end accomplishment
  • Realizing that effort is the constant companion of personal excellence
  • Knowing that mistakes are a natural and instructive part of learning
  • Holding oneself responsible for most of what is learned
  • Seeking to make the process of learning as pleasurable as the result
  • Cherishing knowledge and competence above grades


If the culture values effort as a necessary part of learning, and the family and school are in total agreement in their support of this value, the learners will know, accept, and identify with this same value. They will see it as the natural way to be, modeling and reflecting it within the family and school to which they belong.

In that spirit of harmony, the following guidelines are offered for institutions as well as individuals, and for children as well as adult populations. They are offered as models to use as inspiration for one’s own creations.

  • Treat the person as continuously growing toward increased self-direction and effectiveness. Such treatment develops motivation to learn because it helps to develop attitudes and habits of self-direction – and most of learning is self-directed. When people have a voice in what goes on in their own lives, they see how their growing knowledge and abilities extend the boundaries of their lives. Learning makes sense as a means to enjoy and contribute to their world.
  • Actively model and share a value for learning. It is cliché, but it is so powerful: When it comes to learning, practicing what we preach is essential.
  • Model, acknowledge, and celebrate effort in the pursuit of a chosen goal. Acquiring knowledge often requires the traits of perseverance, endurance, and diligence. If motivation to learn is ever to become a person’s value, that person will have to view effort in the service of learning as a natural and admirable personal trait – a matter of honor.
  • Consistently offer a sincere expectancy that the person can learn effectively. When it comes to learning, the attitude projected to the learners is, "Yes, you did; and yes, you can; and yes, you will!" The help we give is "just enough" – no more, no less, because limited assistance will enable our learners to retain credit for resolving the difficulty and to build their self-confidence for other trials later.
  • Help the person to structure appropriate study habits. The essential ingredient is helping the learners to find a way to make studying a regular priority in their daily routines. This makes learning more automatic and enjoyable because other expectations or needs are always considered relative to, rather than in competition with, studying.
  • Support parental involvement in their child’s school throughout all the years of formal education. The evidence is beyond dispute: parent involvement improves children’s attitudes toward learning and helps to motivate the children to be successful in school. The form of involvement does not seem to be as crucial as that it be reasonably well planned, comprehensive, and long lasting.
  • Help the person to develop an identity as a learner. Identity is a powerful motivational force. People do many things because they literally tell themselves who they are and what to expect from themselves: "I am a parent and it is important for me to be the one to help my child with this problem." "I’ll go because I am her friend and she needs me now." To identify oneself as a learner can automatically cue a framework of attitudes and attributes that benefit motivation to learn.

These guidelines are as much about values as they are about research-based findings or psychological insights. Members of society can make conscious decisions about which values they choose to respect and advocate. Since the future of society will be a rolling echo of these determinations, creating a social awareness which fosters lifelong motivation to learn is not so much a matter of altruistic idealism as it is a simple reach for a decent life for as many people as possible.

Raymond J. Wlodkowski is a faculty member at Antioch University in Seattle and The Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara. He is a licensed psychologist and consultant to national and international organizations, as well as the author of several books on motivation and learning, including Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn (1985), which received the Philip E. Frandson Award for Literature.

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