Intrinsic school

directpath Intrinsic motivation in schools.

Self directed learning and intrinsic motivation. 

Those involved in learning down through the ages have been divided as to what learning should be. This split has always centered around whether children should be made to learn what others want them to learn, or whether they should be encouraged to develop those interests that were developing in them naturally. Should they learn what their government, their society their parents, their teachers, their schools, want them to learn, or should they learn what they are interested in learning? There is of course the third possibility of somehow inspiring students interest in various ideas and subjects, so that they will become intrinsically motivated in areas more acceptable to others. This of course has the added benefit of widening all student learning so that it is as universal as possible with ever expanding areas of knowledge.  This is the world where students to some degree or other direct their own learning.

What others want students to learn no matter how presented can appear controlling. Other's desires presumably can only be implemented through such extrinsic motivators of externally applied punishments and rewards. Allowing students to follow their own interests, by contrast, is completely intrinsically driven.

Why not? The arguments against letting students direct their own learning. 

The main argument against this latter student directed learning was that it would be too confined and limited, not involving the broad skills and knowledge a traditional curriculum provides. It was also thought that children were basically lazy and without coercion would be incapable of learning anything. It was thought children would slack off and do nothing or chat and play.

The success of schools that use intrinsic motivation. 

Despite these arguments, intrinsic motivation has been used in schools successfully for a very long time. The more intrinsic motivation was allowed to become the primary motivator in a school, the better that school performed. Although the first schools of this sort were based more on intuitive beliefs than on hard scientific evidence, they were nevertheless, hugely successful on nearly all measures of learning, including examinations and other traditional forms of evaluation. Some early scientific research was behind the formation of Maria Montessori's schools and behind A. S. Neil's Summerhill school and the schools where Psychologist Carl Rogers acted as a consultant. All these schools provided the world with clear evidence that primarily using intrinsic motivation worked far better than using any kind of extrinsic motivators in schools. Rapidly all kinds of innovative schools were popping up all over the world. There were open schools, free schools, street schools all with varying degrees of success but almost always providing evidence of better, deeper, more effective learning and usually better examination results.

Fairly current research. 

In their book "Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior" Deci and Ryan give us an account of of how current research in Intrinsic Motivation has moved into schools, and scientifically accessed how effective it can be in the process of education. One account in particular is covered very comprehensively as follows:

"DeCharms (1976) has also done research that is directly relevant to the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic learning effects. DeCharms and his colleagues carried out a large-scale research and training project in an inner-city school system. The aim of the project was to create more intrinsically oriented procedures, developing instructional materials that emphasize self-determination and promote self-esteem, and consulting with trained teachers throughout the school year.

Concomitant with the training and consultation aspect of the project was an evaluation-research aspect. Classrooms that had trained teachers and employed the instructional materials were compared with classes that did not. The primary dependent measure for our current purposes was learning performance as measured by a standardized achievement test. Children in classes of trained teachers improved markedly in their performance on the standardized test relative to the children of untrained teachers. The facts that children from the trained classrooms were also more intrinsically motivated and that there was a correlation between intrinsic motivation and achievement in the untrained classes strongly suggest that the children's intrinsic motivation mediated the improvements in the classrooms of the trained teachers.

...When DeCharms and his colleagues ...undertook [this project] they had a remarkable effect. Teachers became more autonomy oriented, the classroom climate felt better to the children, who themselves became more intrinsically motivated and performed better. Perhaps more concerted efforts by of this sort by with administrators and teachers (as well as with politicians and parents) could help achieve the educational goals that we have outlined and that make the school systems more pleasant and productive for the staff and children alike.  

...The weight of all this evidence is rather clear. When conditions are created that facilitate intrinsic motivation, student's learning, particularly conceptual learning and creative thinking, increases dramatically relative to that of students in setting that foster extrinsically oriented learning. Furthermore, as Harter and Connell (1984) have shown, it is likely that improved learning will have the additional effect of further enhancing intrinsic motivation, thereby creating a kind of positively synergistic effect."

Student directed learning an alternative.

The idea behind student directed learning is that learning is like a good habit. Habits form because we are rewarded by something intrinsically pleasurable, and scientific research has shown that there are strong intrinsic rewards that accompany any learning.

Traditional learning. 

On the other hand much of general schooling today still involves the use of extrinsic rewards and pays little attention to intrinsic motivation. By providing students with no choice these traditional style schools take away a child's self-determination, his/her sense of having control over his/her life. If we take away a child's self-determination in this way (and this is the normal situation in traditional authoritarian schools where there is no choice) scientific research has shown that intrinsic self reward becomes diminished and is suppressed. In an effort to compensate for this schools and teachers try to remotivate the children with threats and extrinsic rewards. The child is motivated by the threats or extrinsic reward,s but the motivation only lasts as long as those threats or rewards are in place. Also unfortunately these threats and extrinsic rewards, have also been shown in in research by Deci and others, to have the affect of further suffocating any intrinsic motivation by means of resentment caused by perceived manipulation. If this suffocating of intrinsic motivation continues to occur in many domain areas of learning it can eventually lead to a general dampening of a child's general ability to learn anything.

Student directed learning and the basics.

Student directed learning trys to take a different path where the loss of intrinsic motivation is avoided allowing learning to remain a pleasurable and joyful activity. Student directed learning places faith in the idea that if learning is allowed to bloom as a pleasurable habit a child will automatically learn those bits of knowledge that educators call basics although not at a particular time. The child will learn those basic bits of knowledge when it makes sense to that child. In other words the child will learn the basics when he/she cannot progress further in their desire to acquire knowledge without learning that basic bit of knowledge. 

These bits of knowledge are called basic because without them no domain knowledge can be acquired for very long. At some point all knowledge becomes impossible to extend without them. The thinking in traditional authoritarian schools is that basics should be learned first because once they are learned all other learning becomes easier. It's sort of like building on a strong foundation. This is true, but advocates for student directed learning point out that it is more important to want to build a building than to build up from the foundations. In fact one may learn better the need for good foundations if a few buildings fall down first. In other words wanting to learn is what is important. If you want to learn the how of structure will in time come later. This does not mean that basics are unimportant and that teachers should not try to teach them early. It simply means that teachers should not try to force children to learn them but rather that teachers have a responsibility to make the the basics seem as desirable and interesting as possible so that children will want to learn them as early as possible.

Traditional schooling and the basics.

Forcing manipulating children to learn brings with it all kinds of negative associations that deters further learning in those domains affected. Basics that are forced on children far from making further learning easier makes it harder. Thus it is better that teachers who are unable to make the basics desirable to children should forgo teaching them than force them on children. Thus when basic are learned (and they will be) they will be learned with only pleasurable associations. Simply put intrinsic motivation is more important than any structural concerns.

In traditional authoritarian schools teachers present students with knowledge and wonder why the students do not learn it. They are providing children with pearls of wisdom and the children are not grateful, interested or attentive. Why is their job so thankless they think. But why should the child be grateful, they probably have not tried to make the information interesting, they probably have not tried to connect it with what the child already knows, they probably have not even tried to convey their enthusiasm for the subject.

The teacher's jobs in enabling student directed learning. 

In a student directed learning school a teacher's jobs are many and varied. Not only is their job to facilitate students in learning what they are already motivated and interested to learn but their job is also to inform students just what is available to learn and to somehow excite their interest in new and unusual areas of knowledge. Indeed the most important job of a teacher in a self directed learning environment is to induce intellectual contagion in his/her students so that the knowledge does not stop with the student but is rather passed on to other students and with it the interest and enthusiasm that accompanied it.

Student directed learning is not an environment where children can do or even learn exactly what they like. There are always constraints placed there by parents, teachers, society and the institution itself and indeed none of us can do exactly what we might like. Student directed learning is rather an environment where there is choice. Sometimes that choice will be wide and sometimes narrow but always enough so that a child can feel in charge of his/her own life and learning. It is a place where learning occurs because children want to learn some particular thing and the teachers are there to facilitate it. It is a place where teachers spend most of their time convincing children of the wonder and joy in learning various areas of knowledge.            

The immovable object or why we don't use intrinsic motivation.

Despite all this evidence in favor of using more intrinsic motivation in schools, the education systems in most countries have resisted changing to where increasingly more and more motivation is tipped toward being intrinsic. In their book "Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior" Deci and Ryan explain the continued use of extrinsic motivation in the classroom:

"The process of learning, of elaborating one's internal structures, is intrinsically motivated, and if supported to do so children would be continually learning without any need for demands or reinforcements. The problem, however, for parents and teachers is that intrinsically motivated children would learn what interests them and avoid what does not. This is a problem, of course, because society prescribes a set of learnings - academic and behavioral - that is considered essential and in many cases consists of things that hold little or no spontaneous interest for the developing child. Memorizing lists of spelling words has minimal appeal for fourth-graders, and walking to the auditorium quietly in a single line is by no means their locomotion of choice. Still, whether right or wrong, these things have been widely agreed to be useful and necessary, so they represent primary agendas for for elementary teachers.

From a motivational perspective, such agendas require the use of extrinsic principles, and it is here we find superficial similarity but underlying divergence between the behavioral perspective and our motivational perspective. From the point of view of behavioral psychology, this like all other learning is a matter of conditioning. For us, however, although it differs from intrinsic learning in that it requires the use of extrinsic incentives, it is not a matter of conditioning behavior. Instead it is a matter of of prompting integrated self-regulation, an issue that is addressed by organismic integration theory." [see Deci and Ryan self-determination]

The importance of wanting to learn. 

From Deci and Ryan's perspective intrinsic motivation is appropriate because in their theory going to school is about self regulation. Thus students need to learn; how to learn, what to learn, when to learn, and where to learn, and to do that they have to remain wanting to learn, or relearned to want to learn. This is no small thing. This is the very essence of learning. If we lose interest in learning our actual ability to learn under our own volition drops to zero. Our actual ability to learn is suddenly torn from us and delivered into the hands of others and chance. In other words with respect to learning we are no longer have self-determination and thus lose any say we may have had in our own fate.

Other reasons that prevent the implementation of intrinsic motivation in schools.

Automatic resistance to any change.

Perhaps the greatest resistance to change in schools is peoples general resistance to any change. People are invested in things staying the same. They are emotionally invested in lack of change and often financially invested in lack of change. This idea was perhaps best explained in Machiavelli's "The Prince", he wrote: "It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new."

Path dependence. 

Sometimes resistance occurs as just an accumulative affect. Schools grew up in a time when children were thought to be unmotivated and thus had to be motivated by others. Everything about traditional schooling proceeded from this unfounded assumption which gradually accumulated the emotional resonance of feeling right. Trying to change children back to being self motivated after they have gotten used to traditional schools and have already depleted their intrinsic motivation is extremely difficult. 

Not for the faint hearted.

Introducing such ideas as intrinsic motivation and student directed learning in traditional type schools is a massive task for any school or teacher that wishes to try to improve learning. This is not impossible but requires a massive effort of intellect and emotional commitment for which there will be little gratitude. Everybody will hate it. The teachers the parents and the children will all hate it. This is not for the faint hearted as is discussed in what follows.         

Hoop, Jump, Biscuit.

Nobody really intended for behaviorist philosophy to become the philosophy behind schooling. It just seemed better than threats and punishments for getting children to learn what parents society and teachers wanted them to learn. To know, that the traditional and authoritarian schools have taken control by positive reinforcement to heart, we have only to put ourselves into the shoes of students and try to see the school experience through their eyes. This John Holt clearly points out his book "Freedom and Beyond" as follows. 

"First, we should try to see this situation through the eyes of the student. For years he has been playing a school game that looks to him like this. The teacher holds up a hoop and says, 'Jump!' He jumps and if he makes it, he gets a doggy biscuit. Then the teacher raises the hoop a little higher and again says, 'Jump!' Another jump, another biscuit. Or, perhaps the student makes a feeble pretense of jumping, saying, 'I'm jumping as high as I can, this is the best I can do.' Or, he may lie on the floor and refuse to jump. But in any case the rules of the game are simple and clear - hoop, jump, biscuit."

hoop jump     hoop jump biscuit    rat

This kind of positive reinforcement is not a comfortable enjoyable experience but rather one of a number of pressures to strip students of their individuality and their ability to contribute to and change society for the better. To continue click here.

Freedom to Choose. 

If, as the behaviorists have concluded, punishment is not viable as a motivator, and as the cognitive scientists report, that positive reinforcement destroys our ability to be creative and to make a contribution, is the answer then to allow learners to be motivated by the intrinsic rewards of learning? The answer is mostly yes, but we must be aware that those unused to freedom of choice may well not be able accept, or trust, in our efforts to make learning better for them. John Holt continues from his book "Freedom and Beyond" as follows.

"Now along comes a teacher who says, 'We aren't going to play that game any more, you're going to decide for yourselves what you're going to do.' What is the student going to think of this? Almost certainly, he is going to think, 'They're hiding the hoop! It was bad enough having to jump through it before, but now I have to find it.' Then after a while he is likely to think, 'On second thought, maybe I don't have to find it. If I just wait long enough, pretty soon that hoop is going to slip out of its hiding place, and then we'll be back to the old game where at least I know the rules and am comfortable.'

In short, if we make this offer of freedom, choice, self-direction to students who have spent much time in traditional schools, most of them will not trust us or believe us. Given their experience, they are quite right not to."

Fear of Freedom. 

Until they have discovered the intrinsic rewards of choosing or making the decision themselves, we cannot even expect students to be glad of the opportunity. There are many reasons why they might fear freedom, but the main reason is that if they choose or make the decision they must take the responsibility for it. If they do not make the decision, they can not be blamed, not even by their self. If it goes wrong, they were just doing what they were told. They can blame somebody else.

The facilitator teacher must rise above all this. 

Teachers must not expect gratitude from the students. If you as a teacher offer a choice to students, it is not because you think they are worthy of help, but because it is the right thing to do. John Holt continues about this in his book "Freedom and Beyond" as follows.

"We must try to understand and accept this, without getting hurt feelings, or taking it as some very personal kind of rejection. This may be far from easy. A school, or teachers, or teacher, that offers students very much choice has probably gone to some trouble to be able to do so, and even risk - of misunderstanding or hostility from parents or community or fellow-teachers. If after we have run this risk to give students some freedom, choice, and control in their learning, they show us that they do not believe or trust us, we may be tempted to think, 'Well, you weren't worth going to this trouble for in the first place, the hell with you, we'll go on doing things in here the old way if that's what you want.' But we must resist this temptation, and keep our offer of freedom out on the table even though at first it is not believed or trusted."

The Cruel Deception. 

Students are right to be skeptical about this, because they are in fact often being deceived about this. John Holt in "Freedom and Beyond" exposes this for us.

"Many parents, and more than a few educators, have seized on the idea of open classrooms, freedom and choice, not as a way of having students direct their own learning, explore the world in the way that seems best to them, but only as a way of getting them to do conventional schoolwork more willingly and hence more rapidly than before. In short, they believe in freedom only as a 'motivating' device. This is a cruel deception bound to lead us to disappointment. If we have such an idea anywhere in our minds, students will be aware of it, even if we are not. They will see the offer as not being real. They will know that the old hoop is still there, but hidden."

The intrinsic motivation to be learning throughout life.  

When learning in the more traditional schools, the main type of motivation students are exposed to is extrinsic motivation. For many, perhaps most students, that means being exposed to mostly extrinsic motivation to learn for a period of 15 or more years. Unless those students were lucky enough to have found some way of retaining their intrinsic motivation, the chances are their intrinsic motivation to learn will have wilted away to nothing. After such a long period of having learning associated with extrinsic motivation, current research seems to indicate that intrinsic motivation will fall, and continue to fall till it is practically nothing. We should not be greatly surprised then, to find that most people basically stop learning after they leave the extrinsic motivators of schools. Oh sure, they read novels and newspapers and watch the news on TV, and of course pick up the odd bit from the web. But such people are just skimming without delving deeply into any areas of knowledge. On the other hand, students who learned at school, mostly through their own intrinsic motivation, leave school wanting more. They leave with their intrinsic motivation in tact and with a deep feelings of pleasure while learning. This pleasure insures that their desire to learn enthusiastically and deeply in many knowledge domains remains with them for their entire lives. 

Teachers and administrators of education have a duty to try to maintain these high levels of intrinsic motivation in students, by facilitating students in learning what they are interested in, and guiding and exciting students to develop other interests. In doing this teachers and administrators can expect no reward no gratitude. Every hand will be against such visionaries, other administrators, other teachers, parents and the students themselves yet without such visionaries human motivation to learn will gradually be suffocated. The only reward teachers and administrators can expect is an intrinsic reward, the conviction that such action is the right thing to do. Or it can be seen as a sacrifice needed to be made so that humans survive in a better world.  

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