From Carrots and Sticks to Lightbulb moments: A Low-cost Network Approach to Improving Teacher Motivation

Sharath Jeevan, Founder & CEO of STIR Education

A few months ago I experienced what you might call a lightbulb moment – seeing my then five-year-old son read his first ever book from cover to cover, after months of struggling with reading. I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing the look on his face – the belief he’d gained that he could master anything if he really put his mind to it.

My son is lucky to have an intrinsically motivated professional as a teacher, whom he trusts, respects and values. That lightbulb moment really belonged to her, but I got a fleeting chance to experience it as a father.

This week I took part in a fascinating discussion with the IEEP Learning Portal on the merits and demerits of new technologies to enhance teacher accountability, such as biometric scanning and video-taping.

The author Daniel Pink describes approaches like these as being based off a ‘Motivation 2.0’ paradigm. This paradigm assumes that the way to improve performance, increase productivity and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad. And it relies on a system of “if-then” rewards, which effectively assumes, “if you do this, then you’ll do that.”

Pink contrasts that with a Motivation 3.0 paradigm which allows for “Type 1 behaviours” – self- directed behaviour that is focused on the inherent satisfaction of the task itself and the devoted to becoming better and better at something. In Pink’s eyes, many professions today are driven by intrinsic motivation - and with autonomy, mastery and purpose as the main motivators.

Is teaching a Motivation 3.0 Profession?

For the last five years at STIR we’ve essentially been running a large natural experiment to see if Motivation 3.0 applies to teachers in developing countries. And at a pretty reasonable scale: we’ve been working with over 27,000 teachers in 10,000 schools, who are collectively teaching 1.2 million children, in India and Uganda.

We’ve been doing this through supporting governments to run teacher networks: local, ongoing communities of practice that ignite and sustain teacher intrinsic motivation. A typical network comprises of about 30 teachers across 10 local schools, who meet monthly for a couple of hours. These networks expose teachers to key classroom mastery principles but give them the autonomy to adapt these principles to their own classroom contexts, collaborating with their peers in the process. In addition, the networks are designed to develop underlying behaviours and mindsets – reflective practice, problem solving, collaboration, self- efficacy and growth mindsets – that make the improvement process an ongoing habit.

Throughout all this, teachers receive no direct financial incentives and no explicit promise of career gains. And the people running the networks are mostly government mid-tier officials themselves – ensuring the approach is low cost (less than a week of a typical Indian teacher’s salary) and avoiding the need to build a parallel system.

We’re still gathering more rigorous evidence around our approach, but one of the early findings from a randomised control trial we are running in India is that teachers in our networks are spending a significantly greater amount of time in class actually teaching, based on thousands of independent and unannounced classroom observations. And the monetary value of this additional teaching time – measured in terms of teacher salary – is over 8 times the cost of running the teacher networks. Another large scale study by ASER of over 10,000 children taught by our teachers has indicated initial but statistically significant gains in reading scores of children versus control groups, again after just one year.

What have we learned as a result?

Intrinsic motivation – those ‘lightbulb moments’ -  might matter most.

What seems to motivate teachers most is seeing their children progress and learn, and growing into the best teachers they can be. This is not a new concept: Dan Lortie wrote about the ‘pyshic rewards’ of teaching in the US context as early as 1975. And yet we seem to have forgotten this narrative in our thinking about teaching in the developing world, and perhaps the developed world too. We’ve built this insight into the DNA of the teacher networks we run at STIR.

Intrinsic motivation can’t be developed conceptually: it needs to be developed and experienced through professional practice.


There is a virtuous cycle – or positive feedback loop – between a teacher’s classroom practice improving and their motivation. Seeing improvement motivates them to work harder, which sees further improvement, which boosts motivation further.

To begin we didn’t do enough to build this virtuous cycle into our teacher journey, and as a result weren’t seeing as much classroom change as we would like, based on initial evaluations. We’ve embarked therefore on a major redesign and have now ‘scaffolded’ the journey teachers experience in their networks so they experience quick wins earlier in their journey, building on insights from books like Switch.

People (and teachers) are basically good

The quote above is from Jeff Skoll, who founded eBay, and it perhaps summarises the approach we have developing around teachers: a much more positive one that sees teachers as the solution, not the problem.

Recently I met a new member of a STIR network in Uganda’s Central Region. “Before, I used to get frustrated by a child not being able to learn,” she told me. “But four months in, I’ve developed other strategies to engage them. So now I’ve stopped hitting them.” The principal of the same school told me: “Now, the children are no longer afraid of making mistakes. They enjoy learning. And so they are attending more and putting more effort in.” And children in the school told us: “Our teachers look happier and more confident. They don’t just tell us what’s in our textbooks but go the extra mile to ensure we deeply learn.”

It’s interesting to think about what would have happened to that teacher if she had been bio- metrically fingerprinted on the school steps each day. Perhaps she would have attended school; but would she have that inner drive, conviction that were so clear in her eyes when I spoke to her?

Thinking about the importance of intrinsic motivation – those lightbulb moments - also implies that the role of an education system is to provide a national grid of electricity that enables those lightbulb moments to emerge. It’s an obvious insight, but in most education systems we do a lot to stop these lightbulb moments ever happening: asking teachers to finish the syllabus irrespective of whether their children learnt, requesting data from them but rarely giving it in the form that gives them feedback on their classrooms, or distracting them with non-teaching duties.

We’ll share more about that as we embark on an ambitious research study – in collaboration with UCL’s Institute of Education and with support from WISE – to rigorously examine the external literature around teacher motivation and the success factors of systems that have successfully addressed these issues. This, we hope, will help us develop the foundations of a robust business and financial case for education systems to invest in teacher motivation.

In the process we hope to collectively change the global paradigm around teachers: from a Victorian carrots and sticks approach, to a new approach that puts intrinsic motivation – those lightbulb moments – at its core. From gas lamps to real, ongoing electricity.


Sharath Jeevan is the Founder & CEO of STIR Education, an organization with a mission to ensure that every teacher is driven by the intrinsic motivation to see their children learn and achieve their potential. STIR builds teacher networks in developing countries: ongoing, local communities of practice that support teachers to tangibly improve their teaching and with it children's learning.

Photo Credits: STIR Education