I’m an educator, so my answer will carry the bias of one who believes in schools. Deeply. It’s a point of view I’ll proudly own up to. So while I know that it’s not tough to come up with a raft of examples that show people who have learned on their own, self-educated individualists who accomplished great things, solitary travelers who cracked open the oyster of knowledge and extracted a pearl, I answer that question: “What motivates learning?” with a single word: teachers.
As humans we’re naturally curious, but moving past just figuring things out to really understanding them is helped when we have someone to encourage, inspire, and reassure us.
My four year old nephew visited this spring. As he lingered by a strange looking plant in my parents’ backyard, my mom, who spent years working in a kindergarten classroom, told him: “That’s a cactus. If you touch it, you’ll get poked, and it will hurt.” He eyed the spines and walked away. A few minutes later, he ran into the house holding his fingers. “That’s a cactus!” he told his grandma. “Don’t touch it!” Experience told him that plants could bite; a teacher helped him learn what he needed to from that experience.
More systematically this happens in classrooms every day. Great teachers help students take information and organize it in ways they can use. They provide students with context for what they are learning, and experiences through which they can expand their understanding and take an active role in what they are learning.
The best teachers inspire. They ask questions and prompt students to want to ask even more. They share their own passion for the subject, and for learning, and see in their students a growing curiosity and desire to understand more.
At their best, schools are places where students learn to want to learn and where teachers create opportunities for kids to explore. Through a mystery to be solved, a challenge to be overcome, or a mission to be accomplished, students learn when teachers create students thrive when teachers put them in the position to thrive. Those inspirations and opportunities don’t happen by accident. They happen under the kind, strong, and watchful eyes of teachers.