Blending Theory; Instilling Motivation

Blending Theory; Instilling Motivation

motivationGrit. Curiosity. Character. Self-efficacy.

These “soft skill” terms are ubiquitous in today’s educational landscape—books like Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed have contributed to a buzzing conversation about the importance of not only teaching students the content they need to learn, but also instilling these critical mindsets that are necessary for success; if students are able to internalize and embody these celebrated character traits, they’ll be more prepared for the college and career challenges ahead.

In practical terms, the challenge for educators then becomes: How do we foster, sustain, and enhance a classroom culture in which we embed these soft skills and build intrinsic motivation in a student’s desire to succeed?

There are a few commonly-known and effective ways to build character education: facilitating explicit lessons on positive values and ideals, embedding Socratic discussions with students pertaining to ethical and moral issues, allotting participation grades for cooperative behavior during group work, implementing school-wide core values – the list continues. But what if there’s another way we can emphasize these soft skills to build intrinsic motivation; not just through strategies or a separate curricula, but through our general cycle of instruction? What if we took a step back and looked at daily lessons and the everyday process of learning as a whole to see if this, too, could be strategically utilized to not only enhance academic mastery, but character education and intrinsic motivation as well?

A Core Model with an Inquisitive Twist

Today, I’d like to examine two variations of Catapult Learning’s Core Instructional Model in order to illustrate how blending inquiry with direct instruction could build character strength, “soft skills,” and self-motivation in our classrooms. Both of the effective, research-based variations of the Core Instructional Model you see below use a “gradual release” model of direct instruction (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983; Mooney, 1990).

In the Gradual Release Model, the teacher

  • Assesses the amount and quality of relevant student background knowledge
  • Provides new content to students
  • Models how to grapple with the day’s concept through demonstrations and metacognitive strategies
  • Gives students time to practice this new skill or concept, both in a group setting and independently
  • Provides ways for the student to show mastery of the day’s content through some sort of closing activity.

The specific order of these gradual release activities, however, can be slightly modified, and doing so can produce some interesting results. Look at the two cycles of instruction below—a more traditional model on the left, and a model that synthesizes inquiry-based learning with direct instruction on the right.

Kenger image1


All basic components of the lesson (e.g. assessing prior knowledge, modeling, giving students time to practice in a variety of formats, etc.) are evident in both models. However, notice the timing of independent student practice within the cycle of instruction: After the teacher assesses what students already know that pertains to the day’s content, she immediately grants students opportunities to independently grapple with and attempt to solve problems with very little guidance, structure, and support from the teacher. This support and scaffolding are only given after students struggle with these independent problems.

This initially seems backwards, edging on the border of wasteful. How can students independently master the day’s objective if they’re trying to solve a problem they’ve never seen, and trying to complete a process they haven’t explicitly learned?

But the issue may not be that there’s no clear answer to the question above—it may be that we’re asking the wrong question to begin with.

Let’s take one big step back and ask a broader question: What is the purpose of practice? If we respond with “student mastery,” then inquiry has little space to breathe in our instruction; our goal of mastery focuses on introducing students to a process, giving them opportunities to internalize this process, and then giving some sort of assessment for the teacher to gauge how well they’ve picked up what we’ve laid down. This is an important goal in education—but is it our only goal?

If we looked at student practice as not only an opportunity for students to move toward mastery, but also an opportunity to give students time to struggle, to think of unique strategies to solve unknown problems, and to give them a safe classroom environment in which failure isn’t seen as an unsuccessful attempt at mastery, but as one of many attempts to solve a tricky, relevant challenge that causes us to rethink our process and try something else until we finally and successfully solve the challenge before us, then our instruction can be both academic and behavioral, both mastery-focused and inquiry-based, focused on building student mastery while also enhancing intrinsic motivation[i]. Let’s take a closer look at how our instructional cycle could significantly impact student motivation so that our students’ success can continue long beyond the short year we have with them.

Keys of Intrinsic Motivation

To examine how the inquiry-based model on the right could be used to build intrinsic motivation, it’s helpful to look at Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Although there are a plethora of external factors that may influence our motivation and drive, Pink states that there are three absolutely essential elements that must be incorporated into any given task for internal motivation to be possible for an individual:

Kenger image2

Let’s put this research in the context of today’s conversation: How could we instill autonomy, mastery, and purpose within our students so that they’re equipped with the elements that spark their internal drive to succeed in school and beyond?

The inquiry-based model displayed above may lend us a way to incorporate all three essential elements of intrinsic motivation into our cycle of instruction. First, although the change seems small from the traditional model on the left, shifting student independent practice from the end of instruction to the beginning stands as a powerful way to incorporate autonomy into our daily lessons. If students are able to grapple with a new concept independently before the teacher equips students with knowledge, skills, processes, and strategies during the “teacher input” phase, the level of choice, agency, and self-direction is greatly enhanced—students have the opportunity to solve problems using creative, self-elected methods instead of basing their process off of one or two strategies the teacher has already introduced. Moving independent practice to an earlier stage of direct instruction allows us to use inquiry and creativity, making more room for student choice, agency, and autonomy.

In terms of mastery, we can see how basic components of direct instruction in both models support this element: activating relevant prior knowledge, providing teacher input alongside modeling and think-alouds, and gathering evidence of learning all serve as scaffolds that build student understanding. Providing students with the knowledge, strategies, and processes needed to master the day’s material, along with monitoring, guidance, and frequent feedback from the teacher, will allow the day’s content to be obtainable and approachable, thus pushing learners closer to mastering the day’s objective. Both instructional models sufficiently offer room for student mastery.

Instilling a sense of purpose, however, may require both direct instruction and inquiry-based strategies in order to be evident in our students’ thoughts and actions. In the short term, direct instruction supplies a daily purpose for our students in their learning: Providing clear, focused, student-friendly objectives paired with scaffolded instruction and assessment gives students motivation for the particular concept they’re exploring. In the long run, inquiry-based approaches within our direct instructional model may supply students with a more sustainable sense of purpose that stretches beyond the limits of the day’s content. Giving students time to think creatively and critically in order to solve an unknown problem implicitly emphasizes the value of the learning process in general, beyond the confines of any specific objective.

Looking at our instruction and pedagogical approaches through this lens may suggest that synthesizing inquiry and direct instruction could be one of many ways to help instill intrinsic motivation in our students. By blending these two instructional approaches, we can find ways to strategically support students while also allowing them space to wonder and create—ways to build autonomy while providing the structures that lead to mastery and motivate our students to question, seek, and explore their purpose.


Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballentine Books. 2006.

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin Group. 2006.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2012.

[i] Dr. Andrew Ordover has been generating some great discussion and practical strategies on how to incorporate conceptual practice into instruction in his recent work, Teaching for the Stretch. You can find more information and download the free eBook here:


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