George Lucas Educational Foundation

Motivation- Intrinsic, Extrinsic or both?

Motivation- Intrinsic, Extrinsic or both?

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I'm curious to how you all view extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. I've always thought, rather like Vygotsky's theory on a child's voice starting to be external, and gradually moving to be the inside voice in each of our heads over time, students often need a bit of extrinsic motivation before they develop a sense of intrinsic motivation. Grades, praise, prizes, contests, etc. provide the answer to the "What's in it for me?" question that helps kids see a point to what we want them to learn. Then there's one of my kids who is incredibly intrinsically motivated to learn and participate in class, but as such, doesn't often think that turning in his homework is as important as long as he completed it- that should be good enough! Needless to say, his teachers don't agree. We're thrilled he's intrinsically motivated and curious, but "success" in school is defined on performance and getting good grades- an extrinsic measure of learning. Once we create that "perfect" intrinsically motivated student, and grades no longer seem to matter, how do you keep a student motivated to better their own performance, when its more about the learning than the grade? I'm curious how you balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, since our world clearly operates on an exchange of "currencies"- whether that's money, praise, accolades, vacation time- you name it, and is less concerned with how much you're interested or engaged in a process unless it can be measured or quantified externally.

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Barbara Pelicano Soeiro's picture
Barbara Pelicano Soeiro
1st to 6th grade teacher in Stockholm, Sweden

As I understand that as grown-ups we probably work more - if not solely - for the extrinsic motivation which is our well-earned and so needed salary. There are those, though, whose work is in itself THE reward. And as grown-ups we also find activities which we are intrinsically motivated to do and which will give us no quantifiable reward. As I'm writing this, I will get no grades, no money, no vacation time, no praise. But the subject is of such interest for me that I am willing to give some of my precious time and mental energy to it. Although we probably have to spend more hours on activities which only extrinsically motivate us, to make a living, it is important for the joy of life to aldo find those things we love to do. As Sir Ken Robinson would say, our element. Czicksentmihaly would describe it as those activities in which we enter a state of flow. Children/students, I believe, should definitely be given a kind of education where they are able to work on intrinsic motivation. That is really when we learn things for life. In Sweden, where I am, children only get their first real official grades from year 7 (when they're about 13 years old)and many people question how they can know how well they are doing and how the teachers know what level they are at. But of course there are different ways of assessing learning and teaching at a personalized level. This should eman that the children are working "under" intrinsic motivation till then... But the lack of interest for school/subjects declines as early as in any other school system with grades from day 1. And when the Swedish students get to the grading age, all they think about is what grades they are getting. So, as I see it, it isn't grades - with the stress and anxiety they entail - which motivate them. With or without grades, children seem to loose all the interest at the same age. I strongly believe, as many do, that the problem lies in the actual schooling system, routines, scheduling, subjects and expectations which school impose on the "innately" motivated children. Do we follow their interestes and value what they already know and can share? Are the things we teach really relevant? And to what? As a Montessori teacher I believe in intrinsic motivation, and I've seen it working also and maybe specially with children who were "difficult", "unmotivated", "unfocused", by allowing them free choice of activitiers and removing the strictly scheduled lessons. And by believing in them and giving them responsibilities. Maybe I'm lucky that I didn't have to worry about grades or gold stars, but we still have goals to reach, of course. Maybe if we allow children to learn for the sake of learning and not for performing, they will turn into grown-ups who will create their own dream jobs, because they will believe in themselves and understand the "reward" of working and learning. I've been teaching in a mainstream school, but my Montessori background has definitely opened my eyes to the importance of intrinsic motivation. Of course everyone likes to be praised for what they do. Whereas Montessori saw praise as extrinsic motivation - which of course it is - I can see how that can help specially children with low self-esteem/confidence. Praising can also be used at the same time as you explain what the child could have done to improve, more like bringing out what the child can do to then develop further. And maybe at some point the child will ahve reached a level of self-esteem where praise isn't the engine. This is already very I'll stop here although I have a lot to say about this!

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Thanks for the response!

I agree that students learn best when they have something purposeful to engage them- they have a goal, there's meaning in the work, and it seems important. The act of choice, a critical part of personalized learning, allows students to take a more active hand and responsibility for their work, and I think that's something we do want them to do as adults.

It's interesting that even in Sweden that kids all seem to lose their motivation at the same general age- that to me says its a developmental sequence issue, and we should start looking at Piaget/Vygotsky and see what we can do to help kids during this point in development when they may hit a wall, or simply need a different kid of education at that point.

I'm hoping as more online courses come along, that ultimately education will become less "prix fixe" and more "a la carte" where kids could even audit classes a year or so ahead of taking them, to see what's of most interest, what they are truly ready for, etc. that would provide flexibility for those needing remediation and acceleration and truly let kids proceed at their own pace, like many families here are doing by opting for home schooling.

Are there any online k-12 schools in Sweden?

Barbara Pelicano Soeiro's picture
Barbara Pelicano Soeiro
1st to 6th grade teacher in Stockholm, Sweden

Thanks for your reply!
As far as I know, online learning is available in Sweden for those students who live in more isolated rural areas where there aren't any teachers (?!) or where there aren't enough students to form a class. Also if a student has any form of handicap which unables them to physically attend school, or if they have a "special talent" they can have access to online schooling with a teacher online. Unfortunately I don't know enough about this form of schooling. There are some people doing home schooling but here as well I really don't know much. I've always been a bit sceptical about this "isolated" kind of learning, but that's probably because I don't know much about it. I understand that in the US home schooling is quite common. Here it isn't although it seems to be growing. Whereas I see the benefits as to personalized learning, I am concerned about the possible social/peer isolation. I'm probably wrong. Sweden has only ca 9 million people. Maybe a larger population As a teacher - and parent - I clearly see the benefits of group work, dialectic (?) learning, all the social training that goes with being at school. I like your idea of students being able to contruct their own curriculum at their own pace and interest and working online would maybe give them that possibility, to meet their individual needs. But that should also be possible in a school environment, with open classrooms, flexible schedules and skillfull and inspired teachers. When I have more time I will definitely want to learn more about home schooling. I know that being a teacher is thinking about my students needs, not my own, but as a teacher I would feel quite sad if my students decided on home schooling instead. That would mean for me that I wasn't meeting their needs. I think that the most exciting part of my job as a teacher is exactly that, working with so many different individuals and trying to find different ways of reaching them all! And it's also the hardest.

Jenifer Fox's picture
Jenifer Fox
Strengths Consultant, Author, School Leader

Read Dan Pink's most recent book Drive for some great research and insight on this topic. My understanding about motivation is that all lasting, meaningful, rewarding motivation is fundamentally intrinsic. Learning is an intrinsic reward and people are naturally curious. I believe Maria Montessori was correct in designing a stimulating environment that encourages learning. Extrinsic motivation assumes reward/punishment which is quite different from desire and love of learning.

Susan Gauvin's picture
Susan Gauvin
Canadian, parent, homeschooling, raised in public education

thanks ladies ^_^.

Ken Robinson's "The Element", and listening to Bill Strickland's talk on TED sparkes some interest in this area. I am searching always for some exposure that might spark this as a homeschooling mom. One positive experience was www.joy2learn when my daughter practised tap dancing after watching Gregory Hines videos. Unfortunatly there needs to be follow through...consistancy or more instruction in a real setting. Would like to see more development in the area of tutoring and mentoring in local communities in this way.

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