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Helping Students Understand Motivation: The Character Strengths Angle

By Dave Stuart Jr.

This past Tuesday, I ended “Truths about Student Motivation” with a question: what are the tools and strategies that can equip our students to muster up the motivation required to get them from where they are to where they aspire to be?

This is constantly in my mind during these first weeks of school; I’ve taught freshmen for five years now, so I know that there are few who start high school hoping to fail, and yet many who, by year’s end, have closed doors of opportunity. And I’ve also taught long enough to know that simply being an inspirational teacher isn’t enough; I’m not satisfied with giving them goosebumps in class. I want to give them knowledge about their aspirations, their current conditions, and how to do the work to connect those two things.

So how do we help our kids unlock the keys to motivating themselves?

Character strengths, one of five things I think we ought to work on throughout the school year and across the content areas, is part of the answer — or, perhaps more accurately, it’s one promising track we might take in seeking to help our students motivate themselves. And I think that phrase is so, so important in this discussion: we’re trying to help our students motivate themselves. That’s an Everest worth climbing, much more so than “How can I motivate my students?”

Half of the character strengths are motivational in nature

“But Dave,” you say, “come now. There are nine strengths [1]; what do you mean, ‘half’ of them?”

I mean half because exactly 4.5 of them deal with motivation. (See Fig. 1.)

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 8.52.08 PMThe .5 is Grit, which Angela Duckworth has defined as “sustained passion and persistence for long-term goals.” Passion is what I consider the motivational element — passion makes teachers stick to their work, and artists, and engineers, and parents, and priests, and social workers. Persistence, on the other hand, isn’t motivation — it’s motivation’s product. Gritty people use passion to produce persistence toward long-term ends.

Purpose seems to me a close, more specific cousin of grit’s passion component. Someone with purpose does what Simon Sinek says — they Start With Why, and then they remind themselves of that why, as needed, in order to keep up their motivation. A lot of teachers are motivated by a sense of purpose — we keep exerting effort even on the hard days because we’re not doing the work for ourselves.

Curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation. When we’re curious, we’re inclined to exert effort toward satisfying our curiosity. Most students are curious in only a few areas; our goal, then, is to help them generalize curiosity so that they bring its motivational power to bear on all of their studies.

Gratitude is a form of intrinsic motivation, too — as I describe in this post, it explains Cabdul’s unlikely four-year journey from high school freshmen with hardly any English to top ten student. The habitually grateful is more motivated both because of the reasons they have to work hard and because of the effectiveness with which they ward off motivation-depleting thought patterns (“I’m grateful I get this opportunity” versus “I deserve better than this;” “I get to go to school today” versus “Why do I have to learn boring world history?”).

Optimism, the belief that hard work will pay off in the future, is also the final motivational strength. It’s not “I’m not going to study, because it will all work out!!!!!!!”-style thinking; it’s not “I failed the test — oh well, it’s just a test!” Those things are what Martin Seligman refers to as blind optimism (see Learned Optimism, p. 206); the optimism we’re talking about here is what Seligman would call flexible optimism. Namely, flexible optimism consists of a few habitual beliefs, like remembering that negative events are temporary and even instructive. The key is that optimists have a bent toward believing in their own agency to improve their future — and that is motivational indeed.

So how do we help kids build the motivational strengths?

The most promising way, for several reasons, is to first build them in ourselves with an eye toward what’s happening as we do so. In short: self-experimentation. Which is lots of fun because, as you go about self-experimenting with this stuff, you learn how to get better at life.

Let’s consider curiosity. What is an area in which you’re not currently curious, and how might you try developing curiosity toward it? For example, I’ve never been all that enamored of ancient world history, but right now as I guide my freshmen APWH students through the “first riverine societies,” I’m working to be curious and develop a habit of learning a bit each day about this period.

As we go about this self-experimentation, we can reflect on the process and extrapolate things our students might try. For example, I’ve found that there are times when I’m reading a world history book and can’t picture the geographic location of a place that’s mentioned in the text — let’s say the Aegean Sea, for example. Well, simply being curious about that doesn’t do much good — but it does quite a bit of good if I take a few seconds to flip to a map in my textbook and place my finger on the Aegean Sea. This has taught me (and I’ve shared the revelation with my students) that there are two kinds of curiosity: productive and painful. The painful kind wonders but does not act; the productive kind wonders and acts.

We can rinse and repeat for passion, purpose, gratitude, and optimism. As our students see us developing and contemplating the motivational strengths and their power to improve both our quality of lives now and our long-term outcomes, they have a chance of doing similar internal work.

It’s key to remind ourselves, again and again, that the character strengths are strengthenable — this is why we don’t call them traits. They’re not an eye color; they’re a muscle. And the more we strengthen them in ourselves — and experience the fun, “Oh, ancient world history is actually kind of cool” breakthroughs — the more we’re bound to strengthen them in our students.


1. There are so many lists of character and strengths and success skills — I default to using Character Lab’s, primarily because of my experiences with them and because of their focused dedication to bridging the character-research-to-classroom-practice gap.

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3 Responses to Helping Students Understand Motivation: The Character Strengths Angle

  1. Amanda September 22, 2015 at 11:53 am #

    ALL of your writing about character strengths is absolutely right on. I use your resources and appreciate your ongoing passion on character, and how to build it with our students. More, more, more please!

  2. Holly September 22, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    This post was just what I needed to boost myself into the productivity of researching more and planning for actually teaching character strengths, instead of just dreaming about it. Thanks once again, Dave!

  3. Stan Masters September 22, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    The identification of strengths, skills, and mindsets may be helpful in intentionally teaching these to our students in our classrooms. No longer are these left to a “master” teacher in a life management department or a specialized school curriculum. Yet, these strengths, skills, and mindsets are needed in the 21st century workplace today. Instead of waiting for others to teach them or expect that our students will “get” these through osmosis techniques, we must intentionally instruct, provide descriptive feedback, and reinforce the positive characteristics exhibited by our students. In doing so, we would move from behavior plans that focus on extrinsic motivators to “mold” actions to those that reward intrinsic self-monitoring, self-modifying, and self-reflective actions.

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