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Tapping Teachers' Intrinsic Motivation to Develop School Improvements

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The northern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, are home to some of the city’s poorest residents, including about 80,000 schoolchildren. Many families are recent immigrants to Australia, moving to find work in factories located in the northern outskirts of town. Unemployment is high in parts of this region, but other parts are fairly affluent. If these conditions sound familiar, it’s because lots of school districts serve similarly divided communities and have similarly stagnant results from traditional approaches to improving education. For decades, the school system of this region tried traditional top-down approaches to improve student achievement in its schools, but saw few results.

That pattern began to change when Wayne Craig became the region’s director (like a superintendent) and began emphasizing a simple message: Students should be literate, numerate and curious. From his work as a teacher and school principal Craig knew that lasting school change comes from teachers, so he focused the regional school improvement work on improving teacher instruction.

“The whole notion was that to improve the outcomes of students, you have to change the way you taught,” Craig said. “And to change the way we taught we had to change the organization.”

He knew that if he wanted to see real improvement he needed to help his teachers find intrinsic motivation, give them more control over their work and remind them of the moral purpose in being an educator. He wanted schools to develop their own vision of change and pursue it on their own terms, with support from the regional office.

Craig worked with British researcher David Hopkins to develop 10 theories of action, based on research about what works in education. They found that teachers needed to have all 10 theories in their toolboxes to really make change, but could work on improving each element at their own pace. And crucially, everything worked better when educators approached their own practice and the learning of their students through inquiry.

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(c) McREL International. Used with permission. ((c) McREL International. Used with permission.)

A theory of action connects the action of a teacher to the expected effect on students. Four of the theories were whole-school changes -- things like having high expectations and positive relationships, focusing on inquiry and building curiosity, protocols for what teachers are working on and what students should be learning -- and the other six were teacher-specific changes (things like framing higher-order questions, connecting feedback and data, and committing to assessment for learning). Then he brought this collection of ideas to teachers directly.


“I would meet with teachers once every two months about what we were doing, and that made a massive difference,” Craig said. At first only 50 educators came, but as they got excited about the work and spread the word, soon 300 teachers were showing up voluntarily after work to learn more. This change model focuses relentlessly on improving teacher instruction, moves professional training back into schools, and emphasizes that coaching should happen in teams. Together, teachers themselves worked on how to improve instruction by observing each other’s classes, even just for a few minutes on a regular basis, and discussing what they saw.

“This really resonates with teachers, they want to do this work,” Craig said. “It’s really about how do we structure ourselves so we can do this work.” He likes to say “these are simple ideas, but socially complex.” One of the best ways Craig found to navigate the social complexities was to give schools autonomy. He and his region-level (or district-level) team presented the learning research, grounded in neuroscience, much of which wasn’t revolutionary to many teachers. Then he left it up to school leaders and teachers to work on what was most important in their own context.

“Schools decide how long to work on that and they just keep checking progress and move on when ready,” Craig said. Treating teachers and school-site leaders as professionals in this way helps build that intrinsic motivation and moral purpose that Caig identified as key to improving instruction.

“The level of enthusiasm was just staggering,” Craig said, especially since “school improvement” was as much of a nonstarter to Australian educators as it is to American ones. “They get inspired by the work. They want to do a good job and they can see that this is a way they could be successful. It’s not a bridge too far."


A centerpiece of northern Melbourne’s success with inside-out school change came from triads of teachers coaching one another in teams. Two teachers would observe another’s classroom and later all three would talk about what they’d observed and what that teacher could try next time. Three team members was crucial to avoid one person becoming the mentor and the other the mentee. And, it was crucially important that the observations be non-judgmental, focused on improving instruction, not evaluating performance.

“Good teaching looks the same pretty much everywhere,” Craig said. “The variability was the issue.” Teacher teams also worked on only one theory of action at a time, until they felt they had made real progress on it. For example, all the teams in a building might be working on improving the ratio of higher-order thinking questions to lower-order thinking questions for several months. All along, their colleagues were making quick 10-minute observations of one another’s classrooms and passing on the feedback, as well as discussing ways all could improve.

Teachers in this Australian region responded to the challenge and continue to be excited by the ideas. Although the region no longer exists as a geographical school area, and Craig is no longer its director, he is still working to spread this change model to other regions in Australia.


Tonia Gibson was the assistant principal at Green Hills Primary School in northern Melbourne at the time Craig was beginning the inside-out focus on school improvement. She said Craig was effective as a leader because he listened to teachers and backed up the best practices he promoted with research. “He was such a fierce champion for making sure school leaders were educational leaders, they weren’t just administrators,” Gibson said. That attitude, in turn, empowered her to work to improve the school alongside the teachers in the building.

Craig gave all schools a Curiosity and Powerful Learning document that offered a framework for thinking about change, but wasn’t prescriptive. “It was: Here are some ideas about excellent teaching practices,” Gibson said. “Here are some ideas about student learning, and you could take it away and use it based on where your teachers were.”

At Green Hills, one of the first things Gibson and her principal worked on was changing school culture from one of top-down leadership to one of distributed leadership. They solicited feedback from the staff about what they were doing well and what needed changing. Even that first step was a challenge -- 80 percent of teachers said they’d never before been asked what they thought and if they had suggested something, they had been shut down by previous administrations.

To empower teachers to take ownership over the good and the bad parts of the school, Gibson shared all the school data with teachers, including performance data and parent, staff and student opinion surveys. As a school community they spent six months breaking it down and understanding what it meant for where they should focus their efforts.

“Once they started to reflect and own some of the data, then they started to question,” Gibson said. That first year was all about relationship building, listening and handholding, but soon the teaching staff was diving into meaty topics, like how to scaffold a curriculum from kindergarten through grade six, making sure every teacher in the building knew what was happening in each grade level.

“It was all about aligning our curriculum and aligning our beliefs about teaching and learning and monitoring our kids from year to year,” Gibson said. Teachers started soliciting feedback from students to help them plan their next lessons.

“It was messy,” Gibson said. “It was a huge shift in what these teachers had been doing.” That was especially true in the school’s professional learning communities (PLCs). Those groups existed before the changes, but most consisted of teachers getting together to complain about tough students. Gibson says 18 months after they began to try and change from the inside out, PLCs were looking at ongoing student data and critically analyzing individuals and cohorts. And teachers were using that time to help one another design differentiated lessons for the needs of their students.

“It is awesome and not as hard as what people think,” Gibson said. “The number one barrier to people changing is they think it’s going to be hard.” She recommends school leaders take a hard look at the systems in their schools and remove any barriers to this type of active collaboration, and then trust in the professionalism of their teachers. In Australia, one crucial component of this work was an hour each day for teachers to work together.

This work also created a strong principal’s network in the region where leaders shared ideas, asked for help and built on their learning. Even though Craig stepped down from the directorship in 2012, and the region itself no longer exists, the principals are still in touch with one another.

“It’s not just improving your own school, but improving the system,” Gibson said. When the entire region engaged in this process, all the teachers got better. Now that the region has been divided up and leaders and teachers are scattered throughout different regions, they are raising the bar wherever they landed.


Intrinsic motivation and the power of purpose are not new ideas in education, but the discussion is often limited to student learning. It’s easy to forget that those same qualities are essential to spur teachers to do their best work. Instead, many education systems around the world, including the one in the U.S., have primarily tried to change academic outcomes by leveraging extrinsic rewards (or punishments), to little effect.

“We’re trying to call out that there is a paradigm we’ve been operating under that we can use extrinsic rewards to drive all the change we need in the education system,” said Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL International and author of a report titled “The Road Less Traveled: Changing Schools From the Inside Out.” Goodwin says when you look at international examples, many of these types of extrinsic rewards programs see a bump in achievement in the short term, but then hit a plateau. They don’t continue to produce growth in student achievement over time.

Goodwin says the problem with the types of high-stakes consequences tied to laws like No Child Left Behind is that educators are worried about making “adequate yearly progress,” which translates into moving a few bubble students over a line, rather than focusing energy on changes that transform how teaching and learning happen.

“If you focus on something, you can get some initial bump in achievement, but over time you find it’s no longer working,” Goodwin said. “So then you push something else down from the top.” Instead, he’d like to see an end to the expectation of quick change in favor of a slow, steady improvement of leadership and teaching practice.

“Let’s start with helping people get why they’re doing what they’re doing and then really working on their professional capacity,” Goodwin says. He thinks an inside-out model of change, like the one that was so successful in northern Melbourne, could be adopted by school districts and states in the U.S. It starts with articulating a vision and a moral purpose for the work, one that includes the community in its formation.

In Australia, this method worked. Craig said two-thirds of schools in the region made gains, with the most significant improvement coming from students achieving at the bottom and at the top. Even more exciting, his team started to see that the quality of teaching in poorer schools started to match the quality of teaching in more affluent schools. Those changes were reflected in student and parent surveys as well as test scores. Everything improved. “Our argument is, if you teach well everything takes care of itself, including the test elements,” Craig said.

One of Craig’s most dramatic stories of improvement comes from two schools serving kids living in public housing. Neither school had seen any improvement in achievement in 30 years, so they were shut down and reopened. Craig fired some bad teachers and focused on high expectations and quality instruction for everyone else. In three years, the median scores went from 18 to 25. They're now at 29.

Those low-performing schools had been so bad for so long they also had very low enrollment. Families were desperately trying to send their kids elsewhere. Only one in three kids living near those schools was choosing to go there. Now that the schools have seen some improvement, they have 93 to 94 percent attendance rates and 98 percent of kids are going on to pursue further study.


“My starting point was that these kids have the same intelligence and capacity as kids anywhere else,” Craig said. Poverty and a history of neglect may make it harder to get them up to the level they need to be at (many kids were entering secondary school at grade 4 levels), but Craig said, “We’ve got a moral obligation to do it.”

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