For Learning's Sake: Intrinsically Motivated Children

For Learning's Sake: Intrinsically Motivated Children

Tracey Marks, Ph.D., Lower School Head

Imagine two scenarios:

Scenario #1: Six-year-old Marsha reaches for a grade-level book and reads it. Following this, Marsha receives a gold star. Knowing that she will receive a gold star for every book that she reads, Marsha begins to choose shorter books, turning the pages but not always reading or understanding them. When she has time to read a book at home, she does not do it frequently because she knows that she will not receive a gold star.

Scenario #2: Six-year-old Marsha reaches for a grade-level book and reads it. Following this, Marsha reaches for another one, pleased with herself for having read the first one and recognizing how much she enjoyed reading the book. She knows that her family members at home love to read books, and she recognizes that she, too, loves to do that. Her motivation to read grows stronger, and the more books she reads, the more skilled she becomes as a reader. Her delight in reading and learning is far more rewarding than a sticker could ever be.

These two scenarios represent extremes; what might really happen in each scenario may fall somewhere in between, but this contrast makes a point. At Green Acres, we want children to love learning because it brings them joy and increases their appetite to become lifelong learners. This is best accomplished successfully not through rewards or prizes, but, rather, through the intrinsic motivation that comes from the satisfaction felt by a job well done and the sense of accomplishment that arises through engaging in enriching and positive learning experiences.

Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from inside a person, while extrinsic motivation is motivation originating from an external source. Mike Anderson, in Learning to Choose Choosing to Learn, (2016) explains, “…all students are intrinsically driven to learn” (p. 2) and that “intrinsic motivation flows from ownership” (p. 16). In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009), autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the qualities that Daniel Pink defines as those which motivate people the most.

This is why, at Green Acres, we provide our students with numerous opportunities to “own” their learning and develop a sense of self. We accomplish this by encouraging children to make choices, engage in learning deeply, gain mastery through guided practice, and understand the importance of what they are learning. We value their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, providing them with the self-confidence that they need to pursue knowledge for its own sake. Our goal is to develop in children an internal locus of control, along with an understanding that self-control comes from inside themselves and that they can exercise it. We want children to do things because they love to do them, not because they want or expect to get something in return.

Giving children too many external rewards may have consequences that are not positive. Anderson asserts, “Extrinsic rewards dampen intrinsic motivation and decrease performance. Students may be intrinsically motivated to accomplish a task—because it was challenging, interesting, or fun—but incentivizing student behavior through the offer of rewards saps this intrinsic drive. Students will tend to focus on the allure of the prize over the satisfaction of the work. …this dramatically decreases their ownership of the work, because the work is no longer the goal, the incentive is” (p. 52).

As an alternativeAnderson promotes teaching strategies that “recognize all learners,” and “collective celebrations,” in which all students can participate. He also suggests refraining from “if/then” remarks, when children are promised certain rewards if they demonstrate particular behaviors.

Finally, in her book Rethinking Grading, Cathy Vatterott (2015) maintains that intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, rewards most effectively help students prepare for their future higher education and career experiences: “Students who are college and career ready…are motivated to learn independently of external rewards and punishments.” Perhaps the best way to think about this issue is to consider what motivates us as adults. When I bake a dessert and feel happy about my creation, my pride about it comes from inside myself. There is no gold star given; there are just the smiles on the faces of the people who taste and appreciate it. That’s a natural reward that no star could ever replace. 

Reading in Castle Nook

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Nina Chibber, Director of Admission, Pre-K–1
Sara Huneke, Associate Director of Admission, Grades 2–8
Judy Shniderman, Admission Assistant

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