I Wonder

Is there such a thing as “intrinsic motivation”? Apart from built-in biological compulsions to eat, sleep, reproduce? I’ve wondered this for a while and asked myself the question most recently as a result of excerpts from Robert Samuelson’s September 6th Washington Post article titled “School reform’s meager results“.

A few excerpts:

“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains.”

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.”

From that comprehensive list, only curiosity strikes me as something we would likely agree is mostly intrinsic in nature. We’re not very introspective when we talk about our intrinsic motivations. If we were more reflective I suspect we’d find our motivations are at best intrinsic/extrinsic amalgamations.

When I listen to people explain why they think they did well in school, they typically say, “I didn’t want to let my father/parents/grandmother down.” They weren’t naturally gifted. There were adults in their lives they didn’t want to disappoint.

Given that, maybe the key to education reform is strengthening families in ways that will lead to heightened parental expectations to the point where students are extrinsically motivated by them to work harder and achieve more.

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