People aren’t dull: Education makes them dull

Observations from an alien

Paul Thiebaut III
Cultivating intrinsic motivations is pretty alien in today’s education system

If I were from a different world absent of humans and visited individually with each human on earth, I would conclude that the human species is diverse.

In fact, if I studied human capabilities, I would find that each person is uniquely bright, possessing a special set of capabilities that distinguishes them from other members of their species.

If I went so far as to judge each person based on their unique capability sets, I would be forced to conclude that everyone has something to contribute to their species. To society.

The alien’s ridiculous proposal

As an alien from outer space, my research on humans would lead me to make a proposal that sounds ridiculous based on how you educate humans today.

The logic of my proposal would go something like this:

Because all humans have unique capability sets and because it is people’s capabilities and the use of them that forms the basis of modern society, education should be designed to develop each person’s unique capabilities.

Designing education this way would maximize what every member of society could contribute, resulting in much greater levels of achievement, productivity, performance, and breakthrough progress — an optimized human society.

My proposal would result in education being designed to improve society since, after all, society is based on humans using their capabilities cooperatively.

HUMAN REPRESENTATIVE: “Wait! Before we go any further, define ‘capability’.”

No problem. A capability is the combination of natural abilities a person is born with.

Most people are born with a foundational set of capabilities, such as being able to talk, walk, and sense the world around them through vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

But, everyone has unique capabilities that they can build on top of their foundational capabilities. To name just a few, these can include an amazing voice for singing, quick legs for running, a heightened awareness for sensing people’s emotions, a quick grasp of math or reading, a tendency to analyze or imagine, a knack for assembling and disassembling things, and many many more natural abilities.

Essentially, a capability is someone’s potential, what they could do if they developed their abilities to the fullest.

“Okay, assuming I agree with your viewpoint that education should develop each person’s capabilities (because that would have been nice if when I was in school my capabilities would have been the subject of education), what’s the plan for implementing your proposal?”

Great question. Much better than just assuming that developing each student’s capabilities sounds impossible and sticking with a subpar education system.

The first step to maximizing people’s unique capability sets is to stop replacing expectations of what students should learn with new expectations of what students should learn. Be it 21st century skills, STEM or STEAM skills, social-emotional learning (SEL), or whatever, creating expectations for what students should learn comes at the cost of blinding you to what students can learn.

Expectations of what students should learn disregards innate ability and methods to develop those abilities into socially useful and economically valuable skills, and instead causes you to judge students based on their ability to meet expectations.

Judging students based on their ability to learn what is expected generates a false profile of their capabilities because it causes you to think that it is only those expectations that characterize a person’s capabilities. In reality, human capabilities are vast, if not infinite. Just think for a second of how many careers and jobs exist that have nothing to do with the education students receive today.

If you stop replacing expectations with expectations, it will enable you to notice students’ capabilities and ways to develop them instead of whether students are measuring up to the expectations set for them.

“Okay, so does removing expectations mean that we should just let students learn anything they want?”

As the diligent alien that I am, I did some more digging and it turns out that the best work in removing expectations is done with gifted and talented students. That’s because more than any other area of education, gifted and talented education recognizes intrinsic motivation as an important characteristic in determining what students should learn.

Intrinsic motivation can be defined as doing something challenging that brings you enjoyment.

“Challenge” is a key word in this definition because it helps to explain why some students love reading, while others prefer math, and still others enjoy solving complicated problems, running, singing, thinking, drawing, etc. In one activity or another, all students love to challenge themselves by getting better and better at that activity — by learning for the love of it.

Gifted programs, especially summer and afterschool programs, try to tailor curriculum and content around students’ intrinsic motivations — around the types of challenges they enjoy engaging in. In pedagogical terms, gifted programs are highly differentiated.

In regular education, which comprises about 95% of students, intrinsic motivation isn’t taken into consideration. Students are expected to learn whatever is presented, like it or not. This is why the number one complaint among students is that school is boring.

Imposing learning expectations on students is unfortunate because it often means that they are not spending the most critical years of their lives developing their capabilities, the very asset they will eventually rely on to get jobs, pursue careers, and chase dreams and goals.

Even though in gifted and talented education (GTE) students’ capabilities are paid attention to and somewhat included in their education via intrinsic motivation, GTE falls short of replacing expectations with expectations.

Elon Musk might be an alien

Elon Musk somewhat recently pulled his two children from a gifted high school in order to “homeschool” them. Actually, he started a private school called, Ad Astra.

When asked why he took his children out of a school whose students on average have a 140 IQ (considered by many educational psychologists to be borderline genius), Musk said he wanted his children to receive an education that developed their aptitudes and abilities.

(See, “Finally, Silicon Valley funds homeschooling: Elon Musk leads with Ad Astra” by Penelope Trunk)

While this alien hasn’t interviewed Musk, he thinks Musk took his children’s education into his own hands because he sensed that intrinsic motivation is the source of their aptitudes and abilities — their potential — and that even schools for the gifted don’t activate and develop this source.

This type of decision-making is sensical for a guy who according to conventional wisdom has succeeded by “defying expectations”, or, if looked at through the lens of motivation science, has succeeded by doing and learning what intrinsically motivates him.

I believe Musk decided that receiving an education based on following expectations runs counter to real world success based on defying expectations. So, he created a school that enables his children to learn how defy expectations in their own unique ways by basing their education on their intrinsic motivations.

In a society where most people can’t claim to be doing, or even know, what motivates them, it wouldn’t surprise me if a DNA test revealed that Musk is part alien.

All humans have the ability to be aliens

Education has yet to catch up with the findings on society’s most capable people. These people, Musk among them, tend to obey their intrinsic motivations more than people’s expectations.

Going back to a landmark longitudinal study taken up in the 1910s, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development, psychologist Leta Hollingworth found that “persons of genius are less capable of fitting themselves into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.”

Hollingworth was reviewing the research literature on genius and giftedness up to that point and concluded that “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”. As I understand it, this freedom is not the political freedom to go where you want or associate with who you desire, but rather, is an internal freedom to pursue interests and activities you are naturally drawn toward.

There seems to be something about geniuses that cause them to experience internal freedom regardless of their circumstances, which can be called intrinsic motivation.

Geniuses go off in their own direction self-educating, seeking out challenges they find enjoyable, and as a consequence, defy expectations. Plain and simply, they spend most of their days and nights concentrating on developing their capabilities.

More than 100 years later, human researchers of genius are still making the same findings. Innovation expert, Melissa Schilling, in her book, Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World, concluded that:

“All the breakthrough innovators I studied invested heavily in self-education. They were avid consumers of knowledge, but they followed their own rhythms rather than an instructor’s pace. The went deeply into a topic or broadly across topics they chose rather than following the path of the syllabus. They were fueled by intrinsic motivation — a true love of learning — even if they had no love for school.”

While high intelligence is necessary to do genius level work, not a psychologist worth their salt will skip pointing to a love of learning being just as important as intelligence (E.g. Joseph Renzulli, Theresa Amabile, Dean Keith Simonton, Richard Sternberg, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, etc.). Yet, this critical human faculty — the ability to love to learn — is not developed in education today.

Educating for dullness no more

By most people’s standards, I would have been considered dull. I failed second grade because I couldn’t read, was put on Ritalin because I couldn’t control myself in class, dropped out of high school, and didn’t read my first book until I was 23.

Unfortunately, my case is all too typical among today’s 56 million U.S. students. Among more affluent students, suicide is a worst case outcome of hatred towards school and in lower income communities dropouts are the norm. Everyone is affected by having to follow what I can only call “arbitrary” expectations in school. Yet, students are blamed for their dislike of school and resultant deviant behaviors.

There were two fascinating studies done in the U.S. (Skinner, E. A., Chi, U., 2012) and Spain (Ruiz-Gallardo, J.-R., Verde, A., & Valdes, A., 2013) on students at risk of dropping out. Researchers found that by simply creating an educational program centered around the students’ intrinsic motivations, they did better academically and behaviorally not only in the specially designed class but in their other classes as well.

Like geniuses, when these students experienced internal freedom they were able to rise to much higher levels. This is a win for the students, their teachers, their parents, the school system, and society in general.

So, all this alien research has me thinking…

To improve an education system that makes people dull by expecting the same things out of everyone, maybe we should start educating our students the same way geniuses approach their crafts: by doing what they do for the pure love of it.

Would it actually be that bad to find out that your child or student is a genius, or can learn enough to collaborate with a genius, or, worst case scenario, loves school and spends their most critical years developing productive and economically valuable capabilities?

Cultivating students’ intrinsic motivations would finally show us what expectations each student needs to meet in order to maximally fulfill their own potential and eventually contribute all that they are capable of to their society.


For more information on intrinsic motivation, visit my website, www.thiebautmethodtutoring.org/method.

Read my Intrinsic Motivation: Research Review for the nitty-gritty on IM’s effect on human capability development.

This piece is my manifesto about what I think should be the purpose of education. Since reading my first book at age 23, I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life dedicated to pursuing my intrinsic motivations. Living life like this has resulted in an educational method based on cultivating intrinsic motivation, a successful tutoring business that cultivated affluent students’ intrinsic motivations, a tutoring nonprofit that successfully prepares low-income preschoolers for kindergarten by cultivating their intrinsic motivations and teaching their parents how to support their intrinsic motivations at home, and research expertise on the effects of intrinsic motivation on human capability development. Pursuing intrinsic motivations keeps people learning and filled with purpose and meaning, which I believe students desperately need if they are going to successfully grapple with an unknown future.

Paul Thiebaut III

Written by

Creator of Thiebaut Method — Toddler & Preschool Teacher — Differentiation, Motivation & Learning Expert—Parent Educator — www.thiebautmethodtutoring.org

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