Saturday, January 18, 2014

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Post by Evan Hartman: Evan is in his 4th year of teaching. He worked as a biomedical engineer for three years before becoming a math teacher. This is his first year at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Evan on twitter @EvanrHartman

Like some of you, I came into education as career change. I began my career as an engineer because I was one of those kids whose fate was to be an engineer. That is, my father was an engineer and I was raised to think like an engineer. There was never really a question; when you grow up with Dilbert as your Dad, you take on certain characteristics.

As an educator, this has been both a boon and a burden. The obvious benefit of having hands on experience in an array of highly technical fields has, to be blunt, made me a desirable hire. In terms of classroom practice, it posed some unforeseeable challenges that have forced me to adjust my outlook. I could not have anticipated that it would, at times, make it difficult to relate to students.

This is because, as with most teachers, I am a self-motivated learner. The question “Why do I have to learn this?” simply doesn't occur to me. Everything is fascinating. It requires very little for me to find myself a dozen Google searches deep in some new topic (this morning, while I drank my coffee, it was gravity batteries). However, I think that most of us are aware that this is unusual. In my teaching career, I can count the number of students who have this kind of motivation on my digits (if I am wearing sandals).

These students form a woefully small portion. Yet I find that education is tailored for them. The traditional classroom – even those using so-called reform curricula – present content as though its purpose were self-evident. Proceeding as though students simply need to change their attitudes to find the material interesting is ineffective; we need not even make a value judgment of whether or not we should force the content upon students. It simply doesn't work.

The eminently quotable Grace Hopper once quipped that “The most damaging phrase in the language is, ‘We've always done it this way.’” We continue to educate students in a set of content areas because…well, that’s just what we've always done it.  Students learn their four R’s because that’s simply what is done. A better way should be sought; I don’t have the answer, but I have some observations that may be useful in seeking solutions. I want to discuss what motivates people to learn.

Broadly speaking, there are 2 types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is derived from the desire to do something for its own sake. In my example, I learn for its own sake. I enjoy it. I don’t derive external rewards from it. Extrinsic motivation is, of course, derived from external causes. Things are done for some incentive. For example, most people work for money rather than because they enjoy what they do (if you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you would do your job for no pay).

In an ideal world, everyone would be an intrinsic learner. They would learn because they want to learn (it is worth pointing out here that the scientific consensus is that infants and toddlers are naturally intrinsic learners). However, it is indisputable that many, if not most, of their learners with whom we interact are not intrinsically motivated by education. This observation has created a number of initiatives, some more effective than others. Generally, this revolves around using purely extrinsic motivation in lieu of intrinsic motivators. For example, paying students would be an extrinsic motivator; of course, schools don’t pay students directly, but we routinely make the appeal that getting an education leads to greater earnings later in life (extrinsic motivation by delayed gratification, if you prefer). An alternative that has (thankfully) fallen out of favor is extrinsic motivation by negative reinforcement. Some of you may recall being highly motivated to do your school work to avoid being shamed in front of the class or given the paddle.

However, these are all simply means to an end; students are able to meet the goals set for them because they are motivated to complete the task but not by the underlying educational purpose. That is, students can complete work but have low retention and low conceptual understanding. These extrinsic motivators simply motivate students to finish the task. There is no reflective component, no connection building; if you subscribe to the constructivist school, it is something of a nightmare scenario. It appears that using purely extrinsic means can’t find a foothold by which we can generate authentic learning in our students.

Rather than continuing to beat our head against a wall trying to motivate students to learn what we think they should learn, I think that we need to acknowledge the reality that most of our students are ambivalent about what we have to teach them. Of course we have our standards to meet, but those are our agenda – not our students. If we’re genuinely trying to create ‘life-long learners’ (I think this is a loaded term, but it suffices), then the standards are superfluous because the students aren't going to be given a set of standards for their learning for the entirety of their lives.

Instead of teaching what we have to offer by means of standards, why not teach what people want to know? It may be apostasy, but I’ll admit most of what I know I didn't learn in school. All of those Silicon Valley Wiz-Kids? Most of what they know they didn't learn in school, either.

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do!" - Steve Jobs

How is this possible? Perhaps because the classroom as we know it may be obsolete. It has been said that the lecture is obsolete as a means of information transfer; at one time, the oral tradition was an absolute necessity for information transfer. The printing press, however, made information a commodity. The wide spread use of the internet has absolutely demolished the need for oral transmission of information; the lecture is dead, long live the lecture (in the form of video lessons, wikis, etc).

Ultimately, what I am suggesting is that instead of teaching what we think students should know by means of broadcast we transition to a model of helping students pursue their own interests in a way that is educational. The availability of on-demand educational media makes this possible in ways that we couldn't have imagined 20 years ago. Strictly speaking, I see no reason why every student in my class must be working on the same task (or even studying the same topic). The availability of resources means that my role as a teacher is not to dictate a structured curriculum to which every student need adhere. Instead, I view my role as helping every student to pursue their passion.

I have students working in a class to pursue their own goals. In discussions, they arrived at the conclusion that they wanted to film interviews with students, teachers, and community members and use this video to create a documentary. Wonderful – it’s project based learning you say. However, and this is important, I don’t know very much about making documentaries.

Before Jimmy fires me for negligence of professional duties, I would like to argue that I don’t have to know anything about documentaries. My students have found something that intrinsically motivates them; they’re learning everything they need to know (in fact, they’re teaching me a bit). I facilitate their access to resources, I act as a sounding board, I make suggestions when they solicit my input. I help them find experts to consult and resources to move their ideas forward. In short, I’m simply the adult in the room.

I believe that this sort of experience is profound for students; they have ownership of the process and gain maturity by charting their own course. They are pursuing their passions and learning about what they want. I haven’t given students the hard sell to convince them to learn what I think is important. That is the crucial idea here and what I hope you, faithful reader, take from this: let students learn what they want to know and do so authentically. You’ll be shocked at what students are capable of doing when you let slip the reins and allow them to pursue their own interests.


  1. Evan - what a terrific post! You have been instrumental in stretching our thinking & supporting your colleagues who have figured out that there are other ways to reach kids in order to inspire them. Hard to believe you have only been with us for one semester. You have already made a tremendous impact at Bett and more importantly, in the classroom. Keep pushing our thinking, asking why, & expecting our best! Kudos! - jimmy

  2. Maria Montessori would be proud of you!! Follow the child. :)