When it comes to learning, what motivates me is the freedom to follow what interests me without being forced into a particular track. I've always been the student who asks tangential questions related to our lesson because there is something that I found interesting, but was usually told something quickly then directed back to our book. I am motivated by the control of my learning now, I seek out my own learning. I enjoy discovering my own knowledge and not passively sitting back and having information told to me.
It appears I might be the rule not the exception, according to research on motivation by Callis (as cited on Education.com) that found "students were more likely to rate themselves highly on their mathematics ability when taught by guided practice" (Huetinck & Munshin, 2008, p. 50).
According to social psychologist Tory Higgins, there are three different ways to show motivation. We are motivated by being effective (getting something accomplished), having control of the outcomes, and feeling like what we are doing is genuine or true (Sharfstein, 2012). I think these ideas fit, more or less, with what motivates me. That makes me try and create a class where my students can feel those points. I try and let them control some of the learning by giving them choices and I allow them to 'find' the answers while I help guide them instead of just giving them facts and figures.
I try to offer choice as much as I can. I don't have any qualms about offering choices, but my school curriculum sometimes can make it difficult or impossible to offer choices because we need to stay on track with other classes with the same schedule. Choices can make grading longer for a teacher, since each assignment would be different and possibly not have the same answers that one could check quickly. It may also worry teachers that they will not or can not control their class. It can also be difficult at first for students to have autonomy when they aren't used to it, especially when given a completely unguided choice. However, when a teacher has to read a paper or correct an assignment, many times (if not all the time) it makes the assignments more interesting when they are different and shows their best work because they chose something they are interested in. It also does not create chaos in the classroom, "when students understand their role as agent (the one in charge) over their feeling, thinking, and learning behaviors, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning" (McCombs, 2014). I think it is pretty clear that the pros out-way the concerns of the cons when giving students choice to help motivate them, as long as the students are being guided and helped and given a limited amount of choice to maintain 'control' of the direction of the learning.
From my experience, though not extensive, I've found that if you ask the right questions about a topic, and keep trying different angles if the first approach fails to succeed, then the students will find something they like about the topic and find relevant to their lives. This is where guiding the conversation might help. If the teacher can hook children on something (they will have different things that hook them, of course) then the teacher can build on that and try and find a way to incorporate that into the assignment. Let the students know they will be getting a choice but also encourage them to take ownership of their work and try and make it relevant and they will take to it for the most part. The few remaining children that don't seem interested might take more work digging or they might have other issues with motivation that will take time to uncover or solve, but it will work eventually. I think some teachers quit too fast with a change like this and that is why they struggle. A little patience goes a long way here.
Huetinck, L., Munshin, S.N. (2008). Teaching mathematics in the 21st century: methods and activities for grades 6-12. Pearson Education Inc. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/research-motivation-learning/
McCombs, B. (2014). Developing responsible and autonomous learners: a key to motivating students. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/education/k12/learners.aspx
Sharfstein, Eric. (2012, Feb.). Psychology professor studies science of motivation. Research: Breakthroughs in Knowledge and Ideas at Columbia. Columbia University. Retrieved at http://news.columbia.edu/research/2685