I can if I wanted to

Motivation. It can come in all shapes and sizes. I’m most interested in how motivation effects learning. Specifically, motivation’s impact on the relationship between teaching and learning.

Motivation is always a popular topic. People get paid big bucks to purvey magic recipes to help us motivate ourselves and others. I’ve posted previously about my struggles with math over the years. It’s definitely an issue of motivation. I know that I could be better at it than I currently am, however, it’s like I said — I can be better, if I wanted to.

Can someone else motivate me to ‘want to’ learn math? Sure. BF Skinner showed us that with his creation of Operant Conditioning. 100’s of studies in the operant style have proven that rewards of the extrinsic kind can control behaviour. Now, rewards are a widely spread strategy for motivation.

So I can be rewarded for putting in the time to learn math or I can be punished if I don’t put the time into math. However, the carrot (reward) and the stick (punishment) are one in the same. They are ways of getting me to put the time into math that I wouldn’t have otherwise done by myself. They are extrinsic motivators.

But if I want to consistently and routinely put the time necessary into learning more math I really need to do it for my own reasons. Intrinsic motivation happens when people engage in behaviours because they find the behaviours themselves rewarding.

Research over the last forty years has very consistently shown that extrinsic rewards 1) undermine people’s intrinsic motivation which therefore 2) promotes motivation only as long as the reward is present.

If I’m being rewarded (or punished) in order to keep up with my math studies, I will only continue with my math studies as long as the extrinsic motivator is present. Remove the carrot or the stick and the behaviour goes away too. And rewards that are (or feel) controlling in nature also negatively impact intrinsic motivation.

Here’s a position to consider: you can teach a person but you can’t learn them. I can say that I taught someone today. I can’t really say I learned someone today. It doesn’t make grammatical sense nor does it make pedagogical sense. I can only ever own the teaching. The learner owns the learning.

Here’s a second position to consider: if a person doesn’t want to learn, he/she won’t (no matter how good a teacher/instructor/facilitator/coach you might be).

So I can make someone learn (motivate extrinsically) but I can’t ‘want to’ make that person learn (motivate intrinsically). What then to do?

Sometimes when I look at math, I don’t see things that I really enjoy learning that much. I know they’re important but they just don’t inspire me. I don’t think I’d be alone in that conclusion either. Every day kids and adults alike are asked to learn things that may not be that interesting to them.

As a potential solution, I like the idea of using self-persuasion to create cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance happens when you hold conflicting thoughts in your mind. For example, I know how good mastering math would make me feel but I’m not putting the time in and that makes me feel bad. That creates discomfort in my mind and I therefore want to resolve that discomfort. A possible outcome is that I will then routinely make the time to improve my math. However, I might also tell myself a story (aka make an excuse — I just have too many other important things going on right now) to tame the discomfort.

Finally, there has been research over the years, including very recently, that points to the probability that certain types of extrinsic motivation delivered in the right doses can actually support the development of intrinsic motivation. The issue then becomes finding the right types and amounts of extrinsic motivation to kindle the intrinsic fire of a particular learner or set of learners.

Those who study and regularly report on motivation like Edward Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard Ryan remind us that the underlying issue in their work is one of control versus self-determination of behaviour in social contexts. We can attempt to control peoples’ learning behaviours but in the end that’s not the way to create individuals with a penchant for lifelong learning of a subject. However, if I play a strong role in determining my behaviour, I will be more motivated to carry out that behaviour.

Thoughts on creating learning environments that limit or avoid controlling behaviour and promote self-direction sounds like a good post for another day.