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Intrinsic Motivation...why we don't have clip charts and prize boxes

Motivation is a commonly discussed, sometimes hotly debated, topic. Managers want to motivate their employees to complete high quality work on time. Parents want their children to do what they ask them to do right away. Teachers want both!

It is tempting to introduce rewards or threaten punishment as a way to elicit the desired behavior, but at Marva Collins Cottage School we firmly believe in intrinsic motivation. We want students to engage in a behavior because of the joy, fascination and interest of the activity, rather than being driven by praise, the promise of a reward, or fear of punishment. In psychology, it is defined as doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. But how does this work in practice? Not every activity will be joyful for every student. Our challenge as educators is to ignite interest! Since we follow a student-led educational model, many activities are born out of the child's natural curiosity. At MCCS, we are all learners because the teachers are as open to learning from the students as we are equipped to teach them. We talk to them and more importantly, we listen to them. We watch them at play on the playground. We take note of what they are wondering. All of this is incorporated into our classroom. Our curriculum is both integrated and dynamic. Our schedule is flexible so we can spend more time on an activity as interest dictates. Asking for their input shows them they are valued.

Also, how a lesson is presented or an activity is introduced can make all the difference. Is it a hands-on demonstration in which the child may find themselves eager to try it next or are they learning from Charlie Brown's teacher? (You hear it--wah wah wah wah wah) Long lectures in which the teacher performs as 'sage on the stage', imparting her knowledge into students are quite frankly, boring! We like to think of students as creators of knowledge rather than recipients of knowledge. Am I teaching them concepts? Absolutely! But usually it's alongside them as they are doing and making. I'm asking questions about what they think happened. I might be teaching them vocabulary, but it's done as they are experiencing it such as "Did you feel how warm the bottle is? That's because this was an exothermic reaction. It produces heat."

Why does it matter? If the child has performed the desired behavior, why do we care how we got there? Unfortunately, extrinsic rewards lose value very quickly. Children generally lose engagement after being externally motivated. Furthermore, over time it lessens their inherent love of learning. Without the external stimuli, the child is no longer interested in learning. Even grades are a form of external motivation. A student who has earned an A on an assignment is typically more thrilled by the grade itself than the successful learning it represents. Additionally, children are clever. They may see external rewards as bribery and coercion. The most clever child will lessen their value on the reward to avoid the manipulation, such as saying "I don't like...anymore." Sometimes adults call these children "difficult". I like to think of them as wise.

The good news is intrinsic motivation comes with a kind of reward of its own. The positive feelings that are elicited when a child completes something for pure enjoyment are reward enough. Yes, be sure to commend hard work and diligent effort, but be careful not to create an atmosphere where the child is performing for praise or a reward and less interested in what they can get out of an activity for themselves. (e.g., let's go for ice cream since you...) At MCCS, we like to check in with the children on their feelings. "Are you proud of yourself for completing that tricky puzzle?" reminds them that how they feel about their accomplishment is more important than my approval. Only after I've heard their feelings will I offer my thoughts, such as "I was so impressed with how you took a break and came back to it with a fierce determination to finish." Sometimes they may not be proud or elated, they may feel exhausted or frustrated. Those feelings are valid too! It is an excellent time to empathize such as, "I bet that was exhausting to figure how all those pieces went together. Congratulations on completing it!"

Looking to enhance your child's intrinsic motivation? Remember these factors:

  1. Challenge: People are more motivated when the accomplishment of something is possible, but not necessarily certain. Remember, it's ok for your child to try to tie their shoes when they don't know how to yet. They are motivated to learn. Let them try.

  2. Choice: People enjoy having control over themselves and self-determination about the activities they pursue. Every activity doesn't have to be on the 'path to Harvard'. Remember learning how to set a goal and accomplish it is a lifelong skill that will most certainly help them pursue any future educational pursuits. It is certainly more valuable than sulking their way through something a parent or teacher believes they must do or learn to be 'successful'.

  3. Curiosity: Internal motivation is increased when something in the physical environment grabs the individual's attention (sensory curiosity). It also occurs when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity). Notice and wonder are two of my favorite learning words. We don't need workbooks or flashcards when we notice and wonder. Learning is all around us! And if we ask questions, they have the potential to lead to other questions and even more learning.

  4. Cooperation: Immense satisfaction can come from helping others. Let an older child help a younger child. Let your children help you. Thank them, rather than praise them, for their contribution.

  5. Purpose: It's no mistake that a synonym for purpose is motive, the root word of motivation. If you've explored our website, you know that MCCS students know their whys. Explain to children why something is important or has meaning. "Because I said so" has never sparked motivation.

Lastly, be an example for children. Share with them what you enjoy about the things you are doing. Refrain from making everything about an external reward, such as "I go to work to make money". Although it may be true, remember to highlight the tasks you enjoy at work. Rather than saying, "we need to clean the house because we have company coming over", you might consider, "we are cleaning up so our house will be neat and organized." Everything we do sets an example for our children whether we realize it or not. Unfortunately, the old adage of "do as I say and not as I do" isn't true. Although this may seem like an adjustment in the beginning; in the long run an intrinsically motivated child is much more joyful to parent and there's our reward too!


Ms. Amaya

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