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Be My Guest

Author // Chris Mercogliano

By Harnessing Intrinsic Motivation, Unschooling Reflects Current Cognitive Research.

As I wrote recently in Life Learning Magazine, unschooling is the way of the future, for all ages. So I’m always surprised that so many people think it is wrong, weird, or witless… or even anti-intellectual. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Our education systems are based on outdated science, and unschooling reflects current cognitive research.


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When schools were created, it was thought that learning was a sequential process that involved structure, uniformity, and memorization, and relied on extrinsic motivation and control—things like praise, rewards, and punishment. Now science knows differently: Modern cognitive research is demonstrating that learning is open-ended and spontaneous, and that people—including children—learn best when they are intrinsically motivated and can build on their everyday experiences.

There are different types of motivation, which researchers generally group into intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is about free choice, pleasure, a sense of satisfaction, and the desire to fill a physical, intellectual, or emotional need. If we eat our dinner because we enjoy the food, the company, and our surroundings, and feel good afterwards, we’re intrinsically motivated. We might research a topic on the Internet out of curiosity or for the fun of learning something new—that’s intrinsic motivation, too.

If, on the other hand, we undertake that research in order to get a good mark on a term paper, we are extrinsically motivated. Likewise, when a father tells his daughter that she’ll get ice cream if she finishes her peas, he is using extrinsic motivation to create the behavior he desires in her. (And we could safely assume that the little girl isn’t intrinsically motivated to eat her peas!) Extrinsic motivation involves doing something in order to earn external rewards such as praise, money, or grades, or to avoid punishments.

They’re not exact opposites, and are not necessarily exclusionary. Most of us need and benefit from extrinsic motivation from time to time. We might need the motivation of regular weigh-ins to keep on a diet, for instance. And even though we may be intrinsically motivated by the challenge of running a marathon, we sometimes will employ a dose of extrinsic motivation to keep us training through the long haul.


The Impetus to Learn

Intrinsic motivation leads to optimum learning, according to modern cognitive science. It’s something most parents intuitively know. Just watch any infant and you‘ll have evidence that children are naturally curious and interested in learning, exploring, and mastering challenges. They don’t need to be motivated to learn, nor taught how to do it.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, developmental psychologists at the University of Rochester, capped 30 years of research on the subject in 1985 by calling this “Self-Determination Theory.” Their work confirms that children are born with an innate desire to explore their internal and external surroundings in an attempt to understand and master them. They believe that the impetus to learn comes from within and isn’t separate from the activity itself. In fact, they say that allowing children the freedom to pursue their interests without interference is essential to their creativity and learning—that is, self-determination is crucial for kids.

There are other things beyond interest and selfdetermination that support intrinsic motivation. In a 2004 book titled Learning Disabilities: The Interaction of Students and Their Environments, Syracuse University psychologist Corinne Roth Smith says that interest isn’t sufficient. “A sense of competence (‘I can do this’), autonomy (‘I am making the decision to do this’), and relatedness (‘I feel secure and supported in doing this’) supports this intrinsic motivation,” she writes.

Thomas Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Mark R. Lepper, a professor at Stanford University, published a paper in 1987 entitled “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivation.” They noticed that most students find school boring and require extrinsic motivation to goad them into undertaking educational activities. Recognizing that video gaming is intrinsically motivating for kids and wondering how that differs from the school environment, they identified four major factors that lead to intrinsic motivation: challenge, curiosity, control, and fantasy.

In the words of Australian educational psychologist John B. Biggs, the intrinsic motivation resulting from these factors is “deep” learning, versus the shallower type that may be more about obedient memorization than real learning.


Rewards Can Sidetrack Learning

Researchers have discovered that offering external rewards for an already intrinsically rewarding activity can actually make the activity less rewarding. David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, says that unnecessary rewards can carry hidden costs to learning. “Most people think that offering tangible rewards will boost anyone’s interest in an activity,” he writes. Actually, promising children a reward for a task they already enjoy can backfire, according to the research. In experiments, children promised a payoff for playing with an interesting puzzle or toy later play with the toy less than do children who are not paid to play. It is as if the children think, ‘If I have to be bribed into doing this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake.’ ”


“The will to learn becomes a ‘problem’ only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined, and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning.” —Jerome Bruner


Richard A. Griggs, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida, goes further, suggesting that many students will become suspicious when extrinsic motivation is used. In his text Psychology: A Concise Introduction, he writes, “With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as over-justified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity.”

Some have even suggested outright that school as we know it inherently impedes learning. Educator and psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in his 1966 book, Toward a Theory of Instruction, that “The will to learn becomes a ‘problem’ only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined, and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning.”

Deci and Ryan concur. In a 2000 paper published in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, they wrote, “Because intrinsic motivation results in high-quality learning and creativity, it is especially important to detail the factors and forces that engender versus undermine it.” One of those negative forces, they say, is extrinsic rewards—along with threats, bribes, deadlines, directives, and imposed goals.


When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are. —Ram Dass


This is just a small and simplistic sampling of the new thinking that demonstrates why unschooling works, and why our current memorization-based education systems are in trouble, in spite (or because) of increased testing and competition. Science has moved past the thinking of Behaviorists like Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, but most schools—and some homeschoolers—are still trying to educate kids via programmed instruction and the threat/ reward mentality. And while some teachers try to use tools like Malone’s and Lepper’s principles of challenge, curiosity, self-control, and fantasy in their classrooms, they are restricted by the structure of schools and school systems.

Unschoolers, on the other hand—or “life learners” as I prefer to say today—can create an environment that is the perfect catalyst for children’s self-determination. In doing so, we are providing for our children and youth the opportunity to learn from activities that are based on their own interests and that satisfy their innate psychological needs for competence and autonomy. Many of us began allowing children to do what comes naturally to them long before science proved it was the best way for kids to learn. I hope science can somehow, eventually, trump the vested financial interests of the education industry so all children can learn as Nature intended.


Pathways Issue 51 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #51.

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