Over at the PsyBlog, they note that there are only two reasons why we do anything:

  1. Because we want to
  2. Because someone else wants us to

The former is what we term intrinsic motivation. The latter is what we call extrinsic motivation.

Summarizing the work of the famous motivation researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the PsyBlog folks state that three factors are at the core of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Competence. We want to be good at something. Things that are too easy, though, don’t give us a sense of competence; it has to be just hard enough.
  2. Autonomy. We want to be free and dislike being controlled. When people have some freedom – even within certain non-negotiable boundaries – they are more likely to thrive.
  3. Relatedness. As social animals we want to feel connected to other people.

Watch Daniel Pink’s RSA video and notice how similar these are to the factors outlined in his book, Drive, of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy. Mastery/competence. Purpose. Relatedness. These are four principles around which we can build powerful learning environments for students. They also are four principles which are violated nearly every single day in most classrooms in America. Ask yourself these questions about your own classrooms:

  • Autonomy: Do students have freedom to make meaningful choices in school, and does that freedom increase as they get older? Or are they told what to do almost every minute of every day?
  • Mastery/competence: Do students want to be good at the things that we ask them to do in school? Or do they just do those things because we ask or force them? Do students get to work at their optimal level of challenge? Or do they have to do the same things as everyone else, regardless of their own learning needs and readiness?
  • Purpose: Do students see the meaning and relevance of what we ask them to do in school? Or do they struggle to see the authenticity and purpose of the things that we have them do?
  • Relatedness: Do students get to connect and collaborate with others in meaningful ways in school? Or do they primarily do their own work in isolation from others?

Reading over these questions, it’s easy to see why students are disengaged from the learning tasks that we give them. The big question is whether we care. So far, most of our school systems don’t seem too bothered by their environmental deficiencies when it comes to fostering internal motivation.

Our actions put the lie to our school mission statements that state that we’re about creating “self-motivated, life-long learners.” The result is that

most of what [our students] experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. . . .

And, worst of all, by the time our kids have reached fourth or fifth grade, they think what they are experiencing in school is normal. [Robert Fried, The Game of School, p. 1]

As school leaders and classroom teachers, how long can we continue to ignore core principles of intrinsic motivation?