Motivation in Middle School

Division Directors' Blog
When I think about motivation, one of my favorite videos on the subject, a whiteboard talk by Daniel Pink, comes to mind. In the talk, Pink suggests that money is not an effective motivator for all tasks, especially tasks that require critical thinking. Instead, Pink suggests that people are motivated by three factors: 1) autonomy 2) the opportunity for mastery and 3) a purpose.

At the middle school level, we strive to create an educational environment that encourages autonomy, supports students in their journey to mastery, and gives them a sense of purpose in their assignments. We hope to foster a learning community where students are motivated and driven by their own desire for success.

In each of my next three blog posts, I’ll be talking about one of these motivating factors and how our faculty weaves these ideas into everyday life in the middle school.  This week, I’m focusing on autonomy.

Autonomy: Conventional thinking might lead us to believe that autonomy is the last gift we should give pre-teens. They are growing into their adult minds, often without the fully-developed executive functioning skills that enable them to consistently make good decisions.  Therefore, many educational institutions try to impose as much control as possible in middle school. In many good schools, you will find rules posted on the walls, students walking in lines, and elective classes students don’t elect to take.

In contrast, Daniel Pink’s work states that self-motivated students must be given choice in order to thrive. He suggests that the choice itself nurtures one’s internal motivation. So, last year, I decided to conduct a controlled pilot program where students could choose a class each trimester and Middle School Enrichment was born.

Over the last year and a half, students have learned how to read philosophy, fly fish, cook, knit, write music, make pasta, draw the U.S. from memory, and paint with graffiti.  Some of my friends who are leading schools out east have questioned what learning really happens in these classrooms. In response, I would share these pictures of pasta-making, snow safety, and fly fishing classes. 

This is autonomy at work.


Students created hand-tied flies…


…practiced casting…


…and caught trout in Gore Creek.


This group of students learned about snow science and backcountry safety.


Another group learned to make pasta from scratch…


…and enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.