A number of years ago we had the opportunity to visit an alternative school that individualized curriculum to meet specific interests of students and foster intrinsic motivation.

We talked with an 11-year-old who for the past four months had been working on his chosen project of “How Birds Fly.” His teachers helped him explore and learn math, physics, biology, aerodynamics, history and the proper format for writing a research paper. Everything was constructed around his interest.

He showed us the skeletal models of birds he built, flew ornithopters, demonstrated a small wind tunnel he constructed to observe how different airfoils worked, had created numerous drawings and was reading about Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers.

This student was not going to receive a grade for any of his work. He focused on acquiring knowledge about a topic that held tremendous interest for him. This did not mean he had no structure and accountability. His project required him to set weekly goals of what he wanted to accomplish. He met weekly with his teachers, who helped him meet the goals. He had a five-month deadline to complete a comprehensive written report on what he had learned.

Most scientists agree children are born with an innate need to interact with the environment. These interactions lead to learning and acquiring knowledge. The motivation for this learning is within the child and requires no outside rewards. This type of motivation is intrinsic motivation. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is activity engaged in for a desirable outcome such as praise or a reward.

Research clearly shows intrinsic motivation is associated with greater learning and achievement. Intrinsically motivated children are more involved in their learning and persist longer in goal-directed activity. Intrinsic motivation leads to a deeper understanding of what they have learned and a greater ability to apply that knowledge to future activity.

Extrinsic motivation (working for rewards) can undermine learning. Children will work to get the reward. The focus becomes the reward and not the learning. Learning is not seen as something useful in its own right, and the incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation works best for routine tasks, those that don’t require creativity. If a task requires you follow a prescribed set of rules to a specific end, rewards can prove motivating. Some special needs children may need this type of motivation to achieve routine behaviors, but this should not exclude the child also working on tasks that are intrinsically motivated.

The assumption people are primarily motivated by reward and punishment is not supported by the research. Children under the right circumstances will learn because they want to learn and do good work for its own sake. This shift requires rethinking motivation not as something that is done to people but something people do.

More schools are starting to incorporate some principles from our example at the start of this article. Parents, however, can create a home environment that fosters intrinsic motivation.

Encourage your child’s interests and hobbies. Use your child’s interest as a vehicle for all types of learning.

A sense of autonomy is important. Offer free exploration and choices over what to do and how to do it (within parameters). Autonomy is different from independence. One can be autonomous and still be interdependent with others.

Reasonable struggles are good. Experiencing a sense of mastery comes from putting forth effort to get through a challenge. Repeatedly experiencing mastery develops confidence to take on new tasks and challenges. Children are more comfortable exploring and meeting challenges when they have close, caring relationships.

Praise your child’s efforts and don’t focus on results. Asking a child how she feels about her attempts and progress places the emphasis on completing a task because it is important to her, not as a way of winning your approval (reward). Asking, “How do you think you are doing?” promotes the skill of self-evaluation.

Be cautious about using rewards and use them sparingly. Focus rewards on effort and persistence and avoid rewards based only on results.

Some additional resources:

Big Picture Learning: www.bigpicture.org

The Tinkering School: www.tinkeringschool.com

The Unschoolers: www.unschooler.com

Sudbury Valley School:  www.sudval.com

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