The Little Engine That Could, Bob the Builder, and the Science of Grit

By David Palank

“A [person] who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.” – Victor Frankl

“Oh Little Blue Engine,” cried all the dolls and toys. “Will you pull us over the mountain, our engine has broken down and all the good boys and girls on the other side will have no toys to play with and no wholesome food to eat, unless you help us. Please, please, help us, Little Blue Engine.”

“I’m not very big,” said the Little Blue Engine …The very little engine looked up and saw the tears in the doll’s eyes. And she thought of all the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain who would have no wholesome food unless she helped.

Then she said, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” And she hitched herself to the train.[i]

The Little Engine That Could was one of my favorite stories from my childhood, but it is really how we should teach children to think in difficult situations?  This children’s story has two main components that I wish to highlight.

First, the “why” that motivated the Little Engine. Secondly, how he motivated himself to complete the task. One of these is backed by research and one is not. In fact, as much as I love the book, I encourage my sons to enjoy another motivated animated character, Bob the Builder. First, let’s examine the “why” behind the engine’s decision to help.

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Learning For Others

In education, some tasks are just not that interesting. Very few years of teaching can pass by without a teacher hearing from a particular student “Why are we learning this? I will never have to use this in real life?” or “When will I ever have to know the capital of Denmark?” This is commonplace for students for many reasons. The teacher’s response is often akin to “because I said so!”

There is a much more productive and effective way to respond to this line of questioning by students. Instead of the teacher explaining why it is important what if the students came up with the answer themselves? Additionally, just like the Little Engine That Could, what if the reasons that they produced were prompted to be pro-social and in service to other people?

Getting students to generate pro-social or self-transcendent purposes to these questions has been shown to actually increase GPA and engagement of the students. In a 2014 study, researchers found that linking their course material and their work they were doing in class to a purpose other than themselves got great results.

“Many important learning tasks feel uninteresting and tedious to learners. This research proposed that promoting a pro-social, self-transcendent purpose could improve academic self-regulation on such tasks. This proposal was supported in 4 studies with over 2,000 adolescents and young adults.” [ii]

This one time psychological intervention resulted in improved GPAs in both math and science!

Researchers, including heavyweights Angela Duckworth, David Yeager, and Gregory Walton who have made their lives’ work learning the best way to motivate at-risk students, first established a link between purpose for learning and persistence.  They then used a brief, one-time intervention and results showed causality that

“self-transcendent purpose for learning could improve high school science and math grade point average (GPA) over several months.”

A third study showed that this intervention also increased deep learning behavior on tedious test review materials and sustained self-regulation over the course of an increasingly boring task.  Finally, as the authors note,

“More self-oriented motives for learning—such as the desire to have an interesting or enjoyable career—did not, on their own, consistently produce these benefits.”[ii]

Students are motivated more by a larger purpose than for their own self-promotion.  Tapping into this could be a potential boon for educators.

Are Self -Affirmations Really the Answer?

Self-affirmations are a very effective technique for increasing motivation in people. “Self-affirmation is a process of thinking or writing about one’s core values. This psychological technique has been effective in augmenting interventions across multiple domains.”[iv] Core values are important, but what is the best way to self affirm and motivate for any task?  Teachers should have students tell themselves “I will study tonight!” Or should they?

Think Like Bob the Builder

Bob the Builder, for those unfamiliar, is an animated TV show for children. Bob’s catchphrase is “Can we fix it?” to which the other characters respond with “Yes we can!”  As it turns out, Bob’s catchphrase is the secret to motivation.

Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, and Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi experimented with two groups of people. Their task was to solve as many intellectually stimulating puzzles as possible.

The first half were asked to use affirmative self-talk (I will solve the puzzles) and the second half to use interrogative self-talk. (Will you solve the puzzles? ). [v]

The Bob the Builder group (Interrogative self talk) solved 50% more puzzles than the “I will” group!

They further tested the theory that interrogative self-talk was better with a third group. “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretense, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”[vi]

Once again, the interrogative group did the best. Why did this work?

“The popular idea is that self-affirmations enhance people’s ability to meet their goals,” Professor Albarracin said. “It seems, however, that when it comes to performing a specific behavior, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving your objectives.”

Telling yourself to do something is a short inner dialogue. However, when you ask yourself, this creates an inner dialogue that is much deeper. It allows your brain to come up with answers, reasons, and other related thoughts that will in turn help you to come up with your own motivation.

The pendulum swings both ways on this type of thinking. In the example above, telling yourself (or telling students) that they will study tonight is an absolute. There is no wiggle room. They must and will do what you say. This subconsciously initiates a fight or flight response. In terms of self- control, using empowered language (Can you study tonight?) is much more effective than absolute language.


David Palank is Principal at San Miguel School in Washington, DC.  San Miguel School uniquely serves low-income youth in the DC area with a preference for those living in poverty and who would not otherwise have access to a high quality private education.  At San Miguel, 100 percent of  2014 and 2013 graduating classes were accepted into private/college-prep high schools and 97 percent of  alumni are pursuing or have received a high school diploma.  Of current students. 95 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Article sources:

[i] Piper, W. (2012, September 10). Watty Piper’s 1930 “The Little Engine That Could” – Print Magazine. Retrieved March 8, 2015, from

[ii]Yeager, D., Henderson, M., Paunesku, D., Walton, G., D’Mello, S., Spitzer, B., & Duckworth, A. (2014). Boring but important: A self-transcendent purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(7), 559-580.

[iv] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2010, June 1). Will we succeed? The science of self-motivation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2015 from

[v] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2010, June 1). Will we succeed? The science of self-motivation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2015 from

[vi] Heil, A. (2014, January 1). I can vs. can I? Why interrogative self-talk will make you more successful. Retrieved March 10, 2015, from

(vii] Falk, E., O’Donnell, M., Cascio, C., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M., … Strecher, V. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain ’ s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,


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