Intrinsic Motivation

When I was growing up, I was a Yankees baseball fan. They were winning, my third grade teacher read us a story about Mickey Mantle, and my dad loved the Dodgers – so I picked the Yankees. In the early 1980s I listened to an interview on the radio with Reggie Jackson – Mr. October – and was crushed by the concrete example that emerged in the interview of extrinsic rewards destroying intrinsic motivation. In order to become Mr. October, Reggie Jackson would have had to put in countless hours of practise, and he would have had to love the game in order to dedicate that much of his life to it. He was one of the highest paid professional sports stars at the time, and the interviewer asked him if he would still play the game if he was only paid $100,000 a year – a fraction of what he was making at the time. I remember being blown away when Reggie replied – NO! The extrinsic rewards, in the form of big money, had all but extinguished his love for the game, and he was playing for the money, not for the game.

Why is this important? Because when we do things because we are intrinsically motivated, we do a better job. We engage more, we attend better, and we work harder. We are working at something that we want to accomplish, and we work harder for ourselves than for anything else.

If we are trying to do something because we want to do it, we do a much better job, and we can accomplish much more is a shorter time than if we are doing it for something else. If it is for us, we will see something through, and make things happen in order to accomplish it. If we are intrinsically motivated to learn something, we learn it. If our motivation (of which interest is a component) is strong enough, we will learn all there is to learn about something. We learn it because we want to learn it, and there is no stopping us. That is the most powerful motivator we have. In other words, we want all of our learners to be intrinsically motivated to learn.

Motivation and Education

Great in theory, but not so great in practise. In formal education, the further along you go, the more extrinsic the motivators become. By the third grade, children are worried about the mistakes they make, and the grades they get. At a young age, mistake avoidance becomes a primary motivator – mistake avoidance in order to look good. Soon grades become the primary motivator. Where you stand in the classroom rankings becomes all important. This obsession is replaced soon enough with the motivation to gain a qualification, and the quality of the qualification (which relies on grades) becomes an obsession. The qualification is all about getting a good job, and that becomes the primary focus as formal education draws to a close. Where is the learning?

Education has moved into a phase where grades, qualifications, and standardised tests have become the most important activity in the sector. As the educators, themselves, find themselves increasingly under scrutiny for their activities, the measures used to determine their performance moves the educators more and more into focussing on the extrinsic motivators, extinguishing the intrinsic motivation to learn from the learners.

We know from basic behavioural theory that carefully placed reinforcers are powerful in changing behaviours. Using reinforcers (and punishments), you can get a bear to ride a bicycle. Given that teachers are reinforced by producing higher scores on standardised tests, producing higher grades with their students, and getting better quality qualifications, is it any wonder that they work to this end. The reinforcements come from educational administrations, students and parents. Very powerful forces in the lives of teachers. As the grades go up (overall), the teacher is rewarded. The administration is happier, the parents are happier, and the students are happier. It becomes a virtuous cycle of reinforcement (all extrinsic) that pushes everyone into the game, and makes it very difficult to maintain any semblance of intrinsic motivation for learning.

Internalisation of Motivation

We can introduce or reinforce intrinsic motivation in learners, but it takes effort to do it right. With reinforcement for the learners, we can maintain intrinsic motivation in our children, in spite of the opposition from the system (I hate that word, because it means no one is responsible, and everyone is helpless to change anything). There are two types of internalisation of motivation that has been identified, introjection and integration. Introjection involves the internalisation of a value or regulatory process, but not accepting it as your own. With integration, the values or processes are internalised and assimilated into our core sense of self.

Introjection is an internally regulated behaviour, but the reasons for the internal regulation might be more extrinsic than intrinsic. An example might be children doing homework “because they think they will feel guilty if they don’t”, or “I will work hard in high school so I can get a better university place”. Both are considered internal as far as the regulation of behaviour goes, but the internalisation rests on an extrinsic motivator. Introjection has been linked with a more maladaptive approach to coping with failure, as well as heightened school anxieties. Parents and teachers have rated children with introjected motivations as trying hard to succeed, however, there is a better way.

Integration involves truly internalising the motivations to do well as a core part of a person’s being. Working hard is the precursor to doing well – the end. There isn’t any other reason added, simply succeeding at the task is motivation enough. Reinforcing that approach to learning has been demonstrated as a way for a learner’s motivation to be integrated as a part of themselves. Working at, and accomplishing something for the simple reason of succeeding is a much more healthy approach to learning than using extrinsic motivations. Learners who integrate their motivations enjoy school more, and cope better with setbacks.

What can we do to support healthy intrinsic motivations – especially when introducing new tasks? A good rational for learning, presented in a manner that the children can understand, and that has relevance to the life they are living now, is crucial. Extolling the benefits of the future to a nine year old is a hard sell, and makes integration difficult. Another factor that has been shown to make a difference is to acknowledge a person’s feelings about the learning. It might be boring, meaningless, and hard, and sympathetically acknowledging that, while encouraging perseverance, can help a child internalise their motivation to learn it. Finally, and this is difficult given class sizes in today’s world, providing choice in the way something is learned can make all the difference in the world.

When it comes to choice, Stephen Heppell related an experience he had that is worth sharing here. He founded the Not School in the UK. The Not School was an educational programme for children (mainly teenagers) who have been permanently excluded from the educational system. I’m telling this from memory, so some of the details might not be right. He told us about a young man who was not interested in learning anything. However, he had an obsession with medieval warfare and weapons. Building on that interest, the tutor worked with the young man to formulate a curriculum that involved medieval weapons.

Stephen told us about one of the units that involved spears. How much can you learn about spears? Well, with a bit of creativity, you can go a long way with a spear. For example, when you throw a spear, what are the muscles involved? How do those muscles work? What kind of force can you generate with those particular muscles? What are the physical limitations to throwing? In another area of learning, what are the physics involved in a throw? Gravity, wind, terrain? How can you calculate the distance of the throw, given the weight of the spear, the aerodynamics, the musculature of the thrower? What is the force of the impact? The questions can go on and on. As I remember it, the young man aced the standardised tests in calculus, physics and advanced anatomy and physiology (if there is even such a thing) because he was learning all of those subjects in relation to what he wanted to know. The power of tapping into intrinsic motivation. Too bad the system is about supressing intrinsic motivation.

We are built to learn. We seek out learning opportunities as we develop. In normal circumstances, we learn a language, develop significant motor skills, and develop an understanding of how we fit in a complex social environment in a very few years. And then we (usually excitedly) enter formal education, and our desire to learn is reduced, and often extinguished, through the application of extrinsic rewards. The formal education system moves us from hungering after learning to working toward a qualification. We are left hollow in our pursuits of learning.


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