Monday, March 22, 2010

Intrinsic Motivation and Autonomy

Teachers and parents complain regularly that their students or children show a lack of initiative. They aren't self-starters and seem to need more and more kicks-in-the-ass to get motivated. What we may not realize, is that we may to blame.

More and more research has come about to show that human beings are autonomous creatures.

We all, to some extent, want to be kings of our own castles.

Dan Pink writes in his book Drive about how autonomy in the work place has helped companies like Google to give their employees the autonomy they need in order to be uber-productive.

In a typical year, more than half of Google's new offerings are birthed during this period of autonomy. For example, scientist Krishna Bharat, frustrated by how difficult it was to find news stories online, created Google News in his 20 percent time. The site now recieves millions of visitors every day. Former Google engineer Paul Bucheit created Gmail, now one of the world's most popular e-mail programs, as his 20 percent project. Many other Google products share similar creation stories - among them Orkut (Google's social networking software), Google Talk (it's instant message application), Google Sky (which allows astronomically inclined users to browse pictures of the universe), and Google Translate ( its translation software for mobile devices). As Google engineer Alec Proudfoot, whose own 20 percent project aimed at boosting the efficiency of hybrid cars, put it in a television interview: "Just about all the good ideas here at Google have bubbled up from 20 percent time.

What Dan Pink shares with us is that providing autonomy for employees is not only something we must do, but it is something we should do. We should not only because the employee benefits, but because ultimately everyone benefits.

As a classroom teacher, I have decided to provide more and more autonomous time for my students to learn things of their choice. This doesn't mean I give them a blank cheque and wash my hands of them. Rather, I am still their teacher offering the guidance they need, while still actively engaging in their learning.

In an article entitled Freedom helps kids learn more, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci offer this indictment of control and testing:

Too much control over a child's learning - and this includes excessive testing - is bad, a pair of visiting researchers have said.

An emphasis on exams puts stress on the child, and also on the teacher - whose performance hangs on how well his students do.

Deci and Ryan go on to explain Cognitive Evaluation Theory:

Cognitive Evaluation Theory further specifies, and studies have shown, that feelings of competence will not enhance intrinsic motivation unless accompanied by a sense of autonomy or, in attributional terms, by an internal perceived locus of causality. Thus, according to CET, people must not only experience competence or efficacy, they must also experience their behavior as self-determined for intrinsic motivation to be in evidence.

Providing choice and autonomy is a human need, and to overly limit or control this in a way that provides children with less than they need is detrimental to their learning. Alfie Kohn writes about choice and autonomy in the classroom in his book Punished by Rewards:

The rational for giving children choice is threefold. First, it is intrinsically desirable because it is a more respectful way of dealing with others. Second, it offers benefits for teachers. their job becomes a good deal more interesting when it involves collaborating with students to decide what is going to happen.

One of the best ways to motivate students is to realize that we can't. We can extrinsically motivate them, but that would only work against some of the very research that shows students require more autonomy and choice rather than control and manipulation.

The best we can do is provide children with an extrinsic-free learning environment where we can work with them to become the mature, logical, creative, free-thinkers we would want them to become.


  1. I still consider it a major part of my job to motivate students - and that can be done without carrots and sticks. We can help students become intrinsically motivated by sharing our passion for the subject, letting students know what value we get out of it and making it very obvious in how we talk to students that we love what we're teaching. Passion is contagious.

  2. Chris, I totally agree with you. Modelling passion may be the single most powerful way to motivate students to pursue a topic or skill.

    Well put and thanks for sharing!

  3. I totally agree with your statements Joe. As principal, I am looking at how I can give my teachers more time to explore what they want next year as well. I am not sure how I am going to go about this, but it is something that I am striving for.

  4. Joe, I've got some similar things happening in my Sophomore English class. My students are using blogs and Diigo to document what I'm calling 20% time (from Google). These once-a-week self-directed classes are rehearsals/scrimmages for a 6-week self-directed, culminating project we call the Quality Project. Check out our class blog: You can see my set-ups but can't see the student pages. We're dealing with the privacy/security stuff. Aloha, Chris

  5. Human beings share the same basic needs, among them: belonging, achievement,contribution, and fulfillment.If they are given ownership and the content is authentic, relevant and personal, then I think they will be motivated. Meeting personal needs is our intrinsic motivation.

    I certainly agree we are doing damage with testing today. Teacher-designed tests at least had the virtue of targeting specific content and skills covered in class. They might plausibly be interpreted as assessment of recent learning. When I had the autonomy, I constructed meaningful assessments of clear objectives. Even so, they were tests and I would do it differently today.The narrow design of provincial and division tests today trouble me greatly.


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