8 Motivational Strategies and the Proverbs that Support Them

Old World Proverbs Support 21st Century Learning

Proverbs from the Old World can help explain how to motivate students. Scotellaro/GETTY Images

A proverb is "A proverb is a short, pithy statement of a general truth, one that condenses common experience into memorable form." Although proverbs are cultural statements, marking a particular time and place for their origin, they reflect the universal human experience.

For example, proverbs are found in literature, as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

“He that is strucken blind cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost” (I.i)

This proverb means that a man who loses his eyesight-or anything else of value- can never forget the importance of what has been lost.

Another example, from Aesop Fables by Aesop:

"We should make sure that our own house is in order before we give advice to others."

This proverb means we should act upon our own words, before advising others to do the same.

Motivating students with Proverbs

There are multiple ways to use proverbs in the 7-12 grade classroom. They can be used to inspire or to motivate students; they can be used as cautionary wisdom. As proverbs have all developed in some human experience, students and educators may recognize how these messages from the past can help inform their own experiences. Posting these proverbs around the classroom can bring about discussions in class as to their meaning and how these Old World sayings still are relevant today.

Proverbs can also support motivational strategies that teachers may want to use in the classroom. Here are eight (8) approaches to motivate students that can be implemented in any content area. Each of these approaches is matched with supporting proverb(s) and the proverb's culture of origin, and links will connect educators to that proverb online.

#1. ​​Model enthusiasm

An educator's enthusiasm about a specific discipline that is evident in each lesson is powerful and contagious for all students. Educators have the power to raise students’ curiosity, even when students are not initially interested in the material. Educators should share why they first became interested in a subject, how they discovered their passion, and how they understand their desire to teach to share this passion. In other words, educators must model their motivation.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart. (Confucius)
Practice what you preach. (Bible)

Once out of the throat it spreads over the world
.(Hindu Proverb)

#2. Provide relevance and choice:

Making content relevant is critical to motivating students. Students need to be shown or to establish a personal connection to the material taught in class. This personal connection may be emotional or appeal to their background knowledge. No matter how disinteresting a subject's content may seem, once students have determined that the content is worth knowing, the content will engage them.
Allowing students to make choices increases their engagement. Giving students choice builds their capacity for responsibility and commitment. Offering choice communicates an educator's respect for students’ needs and preferences. Choices also can help prevent disruptive behaviors.
Without relevance and choice, students may disengage and lose the motivation to try.

The road to the head lies through the heart. (American Proverb)
Let your nature be known and expressed. (Huron Proverb)
He is a fool who does not consider his own interests. (Maltese Proverb)
Self interest will neither cheat nor lie, for that is the string in the nose that governs the creature.(American Proverb)

#3. Praise student efforts:

Everyone likes genuine praise, and educators can capitalize on this universal human desire for praise with their students. Praise is a powerful motivational strategy when it is part of constructive feedback. Constructive feedback is nonjudgmental and acknowledges quality in order to stimulate advancement. Educators should stress opportunities that students can take to improve, and any negative comments must be associated with the product, not the student. 

Praise youth and it will prosper. (Irish Proverb)
As with children, there is no taking away of what has been rightly given. (Plato)
Do one thing at time, with supreme excellence. (NASA)

#4. Teach flexibility and adaptation

Educators need to try to develop a student's mental flexibility, or the ability to shift attention in response to changes in the environment. Modeling flexibility when things go wrong in the classroom, especially with technology, sends a powerful message to students. Coaching students to know when to let go of one idea to consider another can help each student meet success. 

It's an ill plan that cannot be changed. (Latin Proverb)

A reed before the wind lives on while mighty oaks do fall.
Sometimes you have to throw yourself into the fire to escape from the smoke (Greek Proverb)

Times change, and we with them.
(Latin Proverb)

#5. Provide opportunities that allow for failure

Students operate in a culture that is risk-adverse; a culture where "failure is not an option." However, research shows that failure is a powerful instructional strategy. Mistakes can be expected as a part of the application and experimentation taxonomy and allowing age-appropriate mistakes can increase confidence and problem solving skills. Educators need to embrace the concept that learning is a messy process and use mistakes as part of a discovery process in order to engage students. Educators also need to provide safe spaces or structured environments for students to take intellectual risks to minimize some mistakes. Allowing for mistakes can give students the satisfaction of reasoning through a problem and discovering the underlying principle on their own.

Experience is the best teacher. (Greek Proverb)

The harder you fall, the higher you bounce.
 (Chinese Proverb)

Men learn little from success, but much from failure.
 (Arab Proverb) 
Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.(Chinese Proverb)

Failing to plan is planning to fail
 (English Proverb)

#6. Value student work

Give students the chance to succeed. High standards for student work are fine, but it is important to make those standards clear and give students a chance to discover and meet them. 

A man is judged by his work. (Kurdish Proverb)

The achievement of all work is practice.
 (Welsh Proverb)
Remember that the only place where success comes before work is in a dictionary. (American Proverb)

#7. Teach stamina and perseverance

Recent research on how the brain works confirms that the brain's plasticity means that stamina and perseverance can be learned. Strategies for teaching stamina include repetition and sequencing activities with increasing difficulty that offer a continual but reasonable challenge.

Pray to God but continue to row to the shore.(Russian Proverb)
It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop. (Confucius)
There is no Royal Road to learning. (Euclid)
Though the centipede has one of its legs broken, this does not affect its movement. (Burmese Proverb)
A habit is first a wanderer, then a guest, and finally the boss. (Hungarian Proverb)

#8. Track improvement through reflection

Students need to track their own leaning through ongoing reflection. Whatever form the reflection takes, students need the opportunity to make sense of their learning experiences. They need to understand what choices they made, how their work changed, and what helped them learn to track their improvement

Self-knowledge is the beginning of self-improvement.(Spanish Proverb)
Nothing succeeds like success (French Proverb)

Praise the bridge that carried you over.
(English Proverb)
No one can be an expected to be an expert at something before they have got the chance to practice it. (Finnish Proverb)

In conclusion:

Although proverbs were born from Old World thinking, they still reflect the human experience of our students in the 21st Century. Sharing these proverbs with students can be part of making them feel connected, beyond time and place, to others. The messages of proverbs can help students better understand the reasons for the instructional strategies in place that can motivate them towards success. 

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Bennett, Colette. "8 Motivational Strategies and the Proverbs that Support Them." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/motivational-strategies-and-proverbs-that-support-them-4007698. Bennett, Colette. (2021, February 16). 8 Motivational Strategies and the Proverbs that Support Them. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/motivational-strategies-and-proverbs-that-support-them-4007698 Bennett, Colette. "8 Motivational Strategies and the Proverbs that Support Them." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/motivational-strategies-and-proverbs-that-support-them-4007698 (accessed March 24, 2023).