Element 2: Intrinsic Motivation
Today we have identified the optimal conditions for learning. This is true for people, not just children. The research shows that we learn best when:
- we have control over what we’re doing
- we get regular, immediate feedback
- we have an interest in what we’re doing
Think about something that you chose to learn or explore in order to understand. You wanted to do it, maybe with a passion. When we engage in this way we invest all kinds of time, far more than anyone could require us to. We all know the heavily engaged person: “are you still working on that?!” Let’s assume a healthy level of engagement and not an obsessive, consuming one. It is true that we’ll put in the time to explore and learn. Why? Because we are engaged at a high level. Our motivation here is internal – it is not a prize, an external reward. We are moved, motivated, by a question, a desire to perfect ourself or a desire to solve a problem for its own sake.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has discussed this phenomenon extensively, calling it “flow”. One essential point about high engagement, flow, is that you need to have two things occurring: high competency and high-challenge. When these are out of balance you either lose interest due to boredom or frustration. But find that balance and you will carry on for great lengths of time, feel yourself to be in an ecstatic state of satisfaction and be truly energized by the experience. Imagine a school where this took place! Holy Grail indeed.
When a child can choose what to work on based on her interest at the time she is far more likely to find herself in flow – heavily and productively engaged in the work or activity. Her motivation is internal: to work on a question of interest to me NOW. She will produce more and learn more in this manner than if she’d been assigned the task. And, her satisfaction will not take the form of a grade but will be her own satisfaction in personal achievement. The outcomes here will be twofold, direct or explicit and indirect or implicit. The explicit outcome will be meaningful learning of the matter/subject at hand; the implicit outcome will be that learning is a pleasant, self-controlled and engaging process.
The value of a positive emotional experience when learning cannot be underestimated. The role of emotion, or affect, in learning is huge. We understand this clearly when emotions are negative – we call it trauma. When terrible things happen to us they are embedded in our psyche because they carry strong emotional components; the stronger the emotional component the worse the level of trauma. With positive emotions we can recall similar situations: the birth of a child, a first kiss, a much-deserved award, etc. We recall that which carries with it a strong emotional component because emotions act as the glue of learning: they bond the pieces.
During the process we need to constantly evaluate our success. We need to know if what we’re doing is working. When we build with building blocks we get that: either the structure stands or it doesn’t. We can step back, try something else, learn what worked and what didn’t, improvise, explore, and continue to design based on what is succeeding. It’s the constant feedback that directs us along the way. It’s highly efficient.
A learning environment needs to provide this quick feedback-loop. Waiting days and weeks to see how we’re doing is often too much time.
When we allow for learning to take this form what emerges is an approach to human development that we can truly celebrate as human flourishing. Isn’t this the goal of education? Shouldn’t an education help you to discover what you excel at, what your passions are, and what form your contribution to the world will be?
Each one of us possesses talents and has the ability to develop them. Research (Ericsson, K. Anders) has shown that talent is not so much “innate” as it is the result of hard work – effort. Let’s build an education system that allows for each child to discover their passions and interests and to excel at that/those.
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