When my kids were born, I moved to the suburbs. Along with that came a very grown up accessory: my very own garden to tend.

‘Garden’ was really stretching reality. It was more like an expanse of dry, barren, unloved earth. So I turned to a local gardener. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “I have just what you need.” On his recommendation, I bought pack after pack of different planting seeds.

A few months later, however, the garden looked not much different. So he sent me off again to the gardening shop to buy some more exotic seed varieties.

It took almost six months of desperate back and forth before he finally admitted: “Look, I think the problem might actually be the soil. It’s simply not fertile enough.” And then he said, “Have you ever thought about an artificial lawn?”

Parallel with global education

The garden I stare out to each morning is not of great importance to humanity, but the parallels with what the global education sector has been going through are pretty uncanny.

As Founder and CEO of STiR Education, as well as a member of the Education Commission’s High-Level Steering Group for the forthcoming Education Workforce Report, I am passionate about how education and its workforce are evolving. Since 2000, we’ve been building the physical garden of access to education, and millions more children are now in school  – a remarkable achievement. And we are planting better and better technical seeds, from reading programmes to adaptive learning software. But the motivational soil simply isn’t fertile enough. Teachers have fallen out of love with teaching. Officials have fallen out of love with their teachers. And as a result, children don’t love learning. No matter how good the garden wall and the technical seeds are, the soil is essential for the garden to grow healthily and sustainably.

By the soil, we mean intrinsic motivation at all levels of the system.

The concept of intrinsic motivation is not new. Frederick Herzberg invented the term in the late 1960s, for business. By 1987, his influential article had been reprinted more than any Harvard Business Review article in history. Herzberg defined intrinsic motivation as the motivation to do something because it is inherently satisfying – not because of external “carrots and sticks” (contingent rewards). It is based on building a sense of autonomy (that you can change something), mastery (that you can improve), and purpose (a sense of connection with what you are doing and others around you). 

Herzberg’s key insight was that what motivates someone is not the opposite of what demotivates someone. Extrinsic factors like pay, good working conditions, and formal career structures are of course important – and their absence can lead to demotivation. But once you have these in place as “hygiene factors”, intrinsic motivation is what really makes a difference to overall levels of motivation. And “carrots and sticks” can actually undermine intrinsic motivation in the longer-term.

But this thinking has largely been ignored in education. Instead, governments have tried to enhance extrinsic motivation. Teacher pay is a good example. It increased so substantially in India and Indonesia that teachers in these countries became among the highest paid in the world, relative to per capita GDP. Yet, pay alone is not the solution. There have not been significant changes in student outcomes, and a quarter of teachers in these countries still remain absent on a given school day – due to a variety of factors.

Governments have also designed ever more elaborate carrots and sticks, from performance bonuses (carrots) to biometrically fingerprinting teachers (sticks), to improve teacher attendance. But even when such initiatives work in the short-term (many show mixed results), they are usually expensive and politically unpalatable – and, just as Herzberg predicted, can end up undermining intrinsic motivation in the longer-term.

So, what have we learned about re-igniting intrinsic motivation?

At STiR, we’ve been the main group focusing on this issue at a global level. Seven years in, we’ve been able to do this at a meaningful scale: this year working with 200,000 teachers and 6 million children across 70 districts across India and Uganda. Here are the two key things we’ve learned:

  1. Teachers are motivated most by seeing their children engage and learn (and that’s true of most teachers, not just a few).

At a practical level, our model of intrinsic motivation approach sees teachers undergoing monthly network meetings with about 20 to 30 local peers. Through these meetings they’re supported to develop their practice in areas ranging from effective questioning to creating warm but orderly classroom routines – all designed to create a more effective relationship between the teacher and child along with deeper engagement of children in the learning process.

In doing so they develop the senses of autonomy, mastery, and purpose – the key drivers of intrinsic motivation. This leads them to put in more effort and generate stronger classroom momentum – a virtuous cycle.

Initially, we thought that intrinsic motivation was something people were born with, and so we were working with only a small number of teachers per school – the ones we thought were already intrinsically motivated. It was a godsend to run an early randomised controlled trial (RCT) and find we were completely wrong. It turned out that teachers who took part in our approach were observably no different – no more motivated, no better as teachers, or even demographically different – than those who didn’t. So now our approach is available to everyone and has been brought into the heart of state or national systems.

Governments have been open to this because we’ve been able to show a strong but simple business case: the early RCT showed that every dollar invested in this intrinsic motivation approach gave the government seven dollars in additional teacher effort within a year, and this persisted even after two years.


  1. Teachers’ motivation is also hugely affected by whether the adults around them care – a supportive education workforce is critical. Investing in the ‘middle-tier’ of a system can be one of the best investments we make.

We’ve all watched films like Dangerous Minds and seen the romantic image of a Michelle Pfeiffer type-teacher battling it out against all odds.

But teachers are people too and are highly influenced by how the adults around them behave. We’ve come to realise that developing the intrinsic motivation of the ‘middle-tier’ workforce – officials who support teachers at the district, block, or cluster levels – is as important as for teachers themselves. This middle-tier workforce needs to see motivating and developing teachers as their core role, rather than administrative duties. It’s a workforce mindset shift that’s needed, not just a teacher mindset shift.

That creates a thread of intrinsic motivation right through a system, which ultimately leads to a child being intrinsically motivated to learn.

So now our teacher networks are owned and run by middle-tier officials from day one. The training, coaching, and data support we provide is withdrawn after five years so it becomes an ingrained habit of these middle-tier officials.

We’re already seeing evidence of this in our work across 60 districts in India and Uganda. We gave middle-tier officials the ability to conduct classroom observations in between network meetings. And this led to the rate of teacher practice change – teachers trying out new ideas from our network meetings in their own classrooms – doubling or in some cases tripling. Working in this way is also extremely cost-effective. In India, it costs less than $15 per teacher (0.1% of an annual teacher salary) and $0.50 per child (0.2% of per pupil spend by the government) per annum.


Back to the garden…

We’ve come to learn that intrinsic motivation is an essential but not sufficient condition for system change and long term outcomes growth. Much of the new systems research in education – e.g. coming out of DFID’s RISE – shows that demotivated teachers and local officials can fail to internalise, and sometimes actively resist, strong technical interventions. We need to spend as much time generating the workforce demand for technical interventions as we do perfecting them. That way intrinsic motivation of the education workforce can ‘amplify’ the uptake, engagement, and impact of these technical interventions.

In other words, it’s when the soil and seeds combine that things get exciting.

Our team at STiR is integrating intrinsic motivation into wider system-change ‘packages’ of states or countries, particularly around workforce reform.

For example, in Delhi, where our approach is in every secondary school across the state, we’ve been explicitly linking our intrinsic motivation to other key technical interventions the government has been driving, such as an early reading programme, to enable this amplification. We’ve also been supporting the government to create a new middle-tier structure, called Teacher Development Coordinators, who both run the teacher networks but who can also support the rollout of technical seeds. For the second year running, Delhi achieved its best ever student learning results, with government schools over-taking private schools in absolute terms. There have been several factors behind this amazing progress, but we’re proud of the contribution intrinsic motivation has made.

Our garden crossroads…

We now have a critical decision to make as a global education sector: whether to continue our current path of just focusing on the seeds (now that the physical garden has largely been built) or whether to move towards both soil and seeds.

The latter is what both STiR and the Education Commission aim to promote – education workforce reforms must consider motivation and at all levels of the education workforce. In fact, workforce motivation will be a key part of the Commission’s upcoming Education Workforce Report. In doing so, we can give 800 million children the true promise of education.

As for me personally… Well, after that whole episode with the gardener, I spent months myself just re-fertilising the soil. It was painstaking and frustrating at times to wait for the garden to re-grow. But now, each time I walk into my garden, it feels genuine and real – and so different from the artificial lawn that once tempted me.

Learn more about the Education Commission’s Education Workforce Initiative, and read other recent blogs about the upcoming report.

Sharath Jeevan is Founder and CEO of STiR Education and a member of the Education Commission’s Education Workforce Report High-Level Steering Group.