Finding motivation


This past weekend, I went for a walk with my son. Older readers will remember him from his Lego days: he’s a bit taller now.

Our walk went from central London, along the river Thames, heading back to our home. If we’d completed it, then we’d have hit 100,000 steps and walked about 50 miles (80km).

Spoiler: we didn’t complete it.

But what’s this to you?

As I sit here now, with my feet still somewhat tender, I’m thinking about motivation and where we get it from. That applies as much to the classroom as it does to walks.

In the latter case, we tried to it for a variety of reasons. These included:

  • 100,000 is the highest badge that Fitbit offer for daily step count;
  • Last year, we did some similar long walks and only got up to 60,000 steps;
  • Covid – there’s been a lack of other things we might do;
  • It’s nice to sometimes turn the chat into action;
  • It’s nice to have a joint thing to do, together;
  • We each think we’re fitter than the other one.

Now, none of these are particular good reasons to wake up before 4am to catch a train to walk for 10 hours solid, but they were our reasons.

To use more formal language, there’s a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation going on here: more the former than the latter, since we’re not usually that bothered about Fitbit badges. Essentially, we did it because we wanted to do it.


A comparison with our classes is instructive here, because while students are typically not obliged to take a degree programme, they often are bound by course requirements, our syllabus and class set-up to do much as we say.

Even when we try to use active learning, we have to recognise that the boundaries of that are quite narrowly defined. It’s really rare to be offering up something that is broadly unstructured for students to make of it as they will.

For me and my son, our aim was roughly to see if we could get to 100,000 steps in a day. Last year’s effort had involved walking around and around our house (seriously), so we wanted to try something less demoralising. But there’s where we can see the two sides of such potential flexibility.

On the one hand, we could pick any route, done any how, at any time. Yes, I suggested the flattest possible option, and one with multiple bail-out points (luckily), but we might just as well have heading the other way from our house and made for the seaside. That scope to try whatever we want can be very liberating, and also enlightening, since our discussions beforehand made us think a lot about the various factors we’d need to consider (food, drink, loo stops, weather, scenery, maybe walking at night, etc.)

But that freedom can also be inhibiting. To get to the starting line (in both senses) requires much more engagement and reflection. For some that be too much, too daunting.

In the course of getting ready for this, we both did some research. Mine had more online resources about managing feet during long walks; his had more YouTube videos. One thing I did find was a site that organises events, including a river Thames walk of 50 miles. If we’d signed up for that (it’s in a few weeks), we’d have been supported all the way, with proper meals and stewards and a broom wagon to collect us.

But it wouldn’t have been the same. And it wouldn’t have been what we wanted.

Which might be the final point to consider: your motivation isn’t someone else’s.

Look back at that list, up top. It’s my list, not our list. I think it’s not so different from my son’s but that’s for him to know and to articulate (he declined the option to co-author this post). But that difference didn’t stop us from doing the walk, or from enjoying it, or from learning about our current limits.

Maybe the lesson here is that everyone comes to learning experiences with their own priorities and motivations, and as educators it’s for us to work with that. Like a good undergrad, I could note that education literally means ‘drawing out’, which is what this is all about.

If we can recognise what everyone brings and if we can create spaces that resonate with those differences, then we can all gain from it, both students and educators.

One to think about, as we wait for the train back home, if only to take our mind off our soles.