Motivation to learn and to apply one’s learning

Motivation to Learn

What ignites and sustains the genuine motivation to learn in adults?

As children, we are compelled to learn and our learning is nourished, firstly to survive, secondly to be able to function and thirdly, to understand the environment in which we find ourselves, and therefore be able to behave according to the prevailing cultural norms. Formal education aims to build on the third of these drivers, equipping us not only with knowledge but ideally also with understanding and learning capability, which enables us to better interpret the world around us, to ask questions and make connections that mere factual knowledge can’t answer.

In the 21st century, formal education, certainly at post-16 level, is being reconsidered globally in terms of form, function and learning outcomes. There is a widespread recognition that traditional formal education, with the accent on trainer/teacher-centric knowledge acquisition, is no longer fit for purpose in the modern world, especially given the pace and magnitude of social, economic and environmental change and the demands not only of the world of work but of life in general. The emphasis is on skills that equip us to deal with the change, the agility to learn rapidly and put that learning into the wider context; knowledge is of course still vital and its link with progress and self-empowerment remains.

Are adults more motivated to learn these critical transversal skills, such as problem-solving, learning strategies, cross-cultural collaboration and critical thinking? This is an important question, since these core transversal competencies underpin the massive global reskilling and upskilling needs, estimated by the World Economic Forum to amount to more than 1 billion people by 2030.

A recent report by McKinsey, based on a survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries identified 4 categories of skills that are fundamental for the future of work: Interpersonal, Self-leadership, Digital and Cognitive (NB they included critical thinking in the cognitive section).  The 13 skill groups across these 4 areas – such as digital fluency & citizenship, self-awareness &d self-management, critical thinking – are consistent with the findings in other skills reports of recent years.

However, this report is also notable for evidence of a phenomenon previously anecdotally observed but not formally proven: there is no correlation between a high income and/or formal education on the one hand and a high level of ability in key interpersonal skills on the other. This demonstrates what has long been suspected by main learning and development analysts: educational and economic achievement is does not necessarily bring with it the critical interpersonal and self-awareness skills needed now and for the future of work and life. Indeed, when relating skills to higher level of education, the Report discovered a negative correlation between the two factors, namely “inspiring trust” and “humility”, and an absence of any positive correlation between a high level of education and a range of interpersonal and self-management skills including “empathy”, “coaching” and “coping with uncertainty”.

The findings build concretely on similar recent skills reports, but also have significant policy implications globally, especially in the areas of education systems and in adult learning and training. But there are also important implications for HR departments in organisations, those working in recruitment and selection, Learning and Development, and organisations of all types.

The McKinsey report also identified the top three skills for better outcomes for Employment, High Income and Job satisfaction. From their analysis, it strikes one immediately that “coping with uncertainty” is a common top skill for both Employment and for Job Satisfaction, while “self-confidence” is common both to High Income and Job Satisfaction. Since Employability skills, including the obvious ones like digital skills, are clearly a prerequisite for a career that brings a High Income, “coping with uncertainty”, together with “synthesising messages” (in the skills group Communication) and “adaptability” can be viewed as key foundational skills in the world of work.

Capability and opportunity

It is unlikely that the mere fact of these being key foundational skills for the future of work will be enough to motivate people to focus on improving these skills. Motivation involves three driving forces: direction or orientation towards something, engagement and activation in it, and persistence or tenacity to gain or achieve it. Engaging in learning, if it is not integrated with work, i.e. on-the-job, is something an adult decides to do (or not) based primarily on their perceived needs, plus the applicability and relevance of the learning, in the context of experience already gained, and personal awareness. If we feel the perceived need is likely to be satisfied, then we will be more motivated to engage in the learning.

However, in addition to motivation, there are several other factors which influence the effectiveness of learning and improvement of the key foundational work skills. Chief among these are capability and opportunity, as identified in a NESTA report on what motivates adults to learn digital skills. A person may recognise the need for specific learning and may be motivated towards it and fully aware of its value to them, but without the opportunity or capability to satisfy that need, it remains just a pipe dream. Opportunity can be constrained by lack of available time (after primary work and family commitments), lack of funds or unavailability of training paths within the career path chosen or employing organisation.

Capability refers to much more than just the personal resources and capacity plus ability to undertake the learning successfully.  Amartya Sen, in his book on justice”[1], promotes the idea of “the capability approach”, which is also highly applicable to learning and development. The ability to do something that one values (e.g., to develop oneself and one’s learning), in Sen’s model, is not only dependent on having the resources to do it (e.g. cognitive skills, financial wherewithal), but also fundamentally dependent on the capability to deploy those resources. Sen gives the example of wealthy person that has considerable personal resources and motivation, but suffers from a debilitating disease, or develops a health problem that results in radically limited capability. The same set of circumstances – with all sorts of variables (e.g. mental and emotional health) – could limit the capability of a well-resourced person if they have to care for someone with such health problems.

Adults, therefore, have to evaluate and negotiate a wide range of variables, constraints and enablers in the drive to improve their skills. Policies, practices and learning design all need to take account of these factors, especially where it comes to finding the right balance between providing guided, supportive learning pathways (e.g. graduate training and development programmes) and providing opportunities for independent learning (e.g. MOOCs).


We have seen how capability and opportunity constrain or enable motivation, but what guides can we use to best understand the motivation part of the equation itself, i.e. the motivation to learn? Classically, there are intrinsic motivational factors, which come from within us (for example, our own desires or capabilities) and extrinsic motivational factors, which we are external factors such as remuneration or the promise of a promotion at work. While conventional employment practices tend to focus on the latter as a means of motivating staff, modern employee engagement and talent management policy tend to be more accommodating of intrinsic motivation; organisations are increasingly aware that an employee’s motivation to learn is a key factor in that employee’s success, and therefore in the organisational effectiveness.

Need, or the perception of need, is a fundamental factor in motivation. In some contexts, where the opportunity and capability prerequisites are met, it may be desire or ambition rather than need that drives the motivation to do something or learn something. But, before any discussion around desire or ambition, we need to consider whether the more fundamental needs that people have are satisfied in the work context, and to what degree.

Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the West, the most oft-cited framework for understanding human needs is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and it is used a great deal in the field of education. It is also useful in the context of the motivation to learn, because it is based on Maslow’s concept of “meta-motivation”, i.e., the quality that drives people towards the realisation of their potential. However, the notion that there is a hierarchy applicable to our needs is highly contested.

The assertion that “self-actualisation” – which is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid (later he added spirituality at the top) – is more important than affection or esteem does not withstand scrutiny when considering different cultural contexts. In some parts of the world, including in many indigenous cultures, self-actualisation is not seen as the most developed need or the one that would be most satisfying because there are other customs, conventions and ideals that prevail, for example to devote the self, once basic needs are satisfied, to realising more important shared goals with others, or simply to have the aspiration to survive with loved ones in a context where reaching the top of the pyramid might be neither feasible nor desirable. In short, in a hierarchy like Maslow’s, the “top” needs, worthy of the greatest effort, and the “most basic” needs, the easiest to satisfy, may change considerably depending on the cultural context.

Another limitation of Maslow’s theory reflects an individualistic culture, a culture of “I” instead of a culture of “we”. Self-actualisation is less valued in cultures that are more community-based, collectivist cultures. The implication of this for the organisational field is interesting, because the propensity to “sacrifice” self-actualisation for the achievement of organisational goals might be more prevalent in organisations from these types of cultures. This tendency perhaps leaves people who are happy to do this at risk of exploitation by people who aim to accrue most for themselves, a phenomenon that would not be sustainable for an organisation in the age of global and immediate information.

In summary, then, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cannot be applied across a diversity of cultures; if the human needs he identified were universal, then they would not change in substance according to the culture of reference. The individualistic culture and mentality from which Maslow’s hierarchy was derived seems to fail to recognise that communities and society are the ontological context for human beings.  A result of this mentality is the omission in Maslow’s original theory of the need to participate and to make a contribution (this is very different to the need to belong). This need is fundamental in the field of work, and we generally include it in the motivational stimuli we apply to work. In addition, participation is at the heart of diversity at work.

Max-Neef’s Fundamental Human Needs

Manfred Max-Neef considered participation to be a basic need. He proposed a very different framework of nine ‘basic human needs’, which is strangely little mentioned. The nine basic needs are Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Leisure, Creation, Identity, Freedom (Fundamental Human Needs, Manfred Max-Nee; source: For Max-Neef, these needs do not change according to culture or history.

Fabbisogni di professioni con competenze digitali

What changes is the way they are satisfied. They manifest themselves and are satisfied in four macro-spheres of human existence: being, having, doing, interacting. There is no mutually exclusive one-to-one relationship between needs and their means of satisfaction. For example, the need for subsistence in an infant could be satisfied with a bottle of powdered milk, but mother’s milk, direct from the breast, could satisfy not only this need but also those of protection, affection, participation, identity and many others. Max-Neef’s taxonomy thus shows us that there are many different means of satisfaction for each need. If we apply this theory to the world of work, together with the motivation table, it provides a broad and rich palette for stimulating and guiding people management, personal development and organisational development, and one much more capable of embracing diversity.

Max-Neef’s taxonomy suggests that the needs that drive people’s motivations, including in the work field, are broader than conventionally perceived and carry with them more than personal characteristics. It would not be enough for a long-term job to be intrinsically engaging per se, even with the added variety, recognition of achievement and possibility of personal growth – and thus also intrinsically motivating for the person – if other basic needs such as creation, affection, participation and space for leisure were completely neglected in the work model. If these other needs are repeatedly neglected, or not genuinely addressed at least to some degree, in a series of shorter-term jobs, the person’s economic and social contribution to the organisations and to society more widely will become progressively weaker or worse, potentially distorted.

Moreover, nowadays we realise that relationships at work and the politics of the organisation have a strong influence on work motivation. Aspects viewed as mere “hygiene factors” by Herzberg might actually be the main motivation in certain contexts and cultures where there is more power-distance (see Hofstede) and where people struggle to satisfy certain basic needs such as subsistence and protection.

To summarise, Maslow’s and Herzberg’s theories have some purchase in the theories of personal and job satisfaction but reflect a particular cultural context and are focused on the development and fulfilment of the individual, while neglecting to some extent the context of that work and the social and cultural context, which are determining factors for motivation. In later life Maslow himself recognised this. In contrast, Max-Neef’s taxonomy is more universal, more comprehensive, more robust across different contexts, and thus more reliable as a categorisation of basic needs, from which a wide range of motivations are derived.

If we want education and adult learning to be as engaging and as effective as possible, for diverse and culturally rich workforces to be motivated to benefit from it, then we need to design the learning, both in terms of format and content, so that it recognises a wide range of fundamental needs, as well as potential limitations and enablers in terms of capability and opportunity. Judicious use of multimedia, microlearning, accessibility and flexibility, multiple intelligence stimulation and culturally sensitive simulations are some of the key practices that can facilitate this endeavour.

[1] The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen, 2010, pp231-247

written by: Simon Whittemore , 4 August 2021

May also be of interest

© Copyright 2024 Amicucci Formazione | P.IVA 01405830439 | Cap. Soc.: Euro 100.000,00 (i.v.) | C.C.I.A.A. (Macerata) | R.E.A. (149815) | Privacy policy | Cookie policy | Etica e compliance