As adults and parents, we could all point to moments in our week when we engage in a task because it is a required task, with external factors motivating us, and when we engage in a task because we are personally motivated to do so. Children have this experience, too. They know, from early on, that there are things that they have to do and things that they love to do.
Part of human development is learning to balance these two types of motivators, but often school settings, particularly those that place an emphasis on final products and test scores, value performance over process and can minimize the deep by undervaluing intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation has been studied for decades, with an increasing push and pull between how society structures education and how children naturally learn best. The problem is not simply that when you motivate children externally they lose some of the joy in learning process; it also undermines their self-confidence, and anxiety and insecurity enter into the spaces where curiosity and problem-solving should be developing.
As we begin to push back on the overscheduling of activities and cut back on homework for children in elementary school, we can make more room for learning based on intrinsic motivation. Project-based learning and interdisciplinary studies also create opportunities in the classroom for children to explore their own interests, build on their ideas and collaborate with others. As parents, we have all seen what our child looks like when he or she is extremely motivated by something. It could be a praying mantis discovered in a garden that occupies an afternoon of observation, then research, and finally an art project or story. It could be a yearlong passion for rockets that involves creating a rocket launch in the garden and testing the trajectory of various homemade rockets. Regardless of your child’s specific interest, you probably know what he or she looks like when exploring it. Time falls by the wayside, one thought leads to another, and ideas, questions and possible solutions begin to flow.
This is what a psychologist and university professor, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, has described as being in a state of flow when he published his research linking learning to intrinstic motivation. It is what Adam Grant describes in his research into creativity, and is what we see in the children who work in collaborative, progressive schools similar to those featured in the film, Most Likely to Succeed. If you are interested in learning more about the connection between motivation, learning and critical thinking skills, these names are great resources, as our description only scratches the surface.
With so much research on the importance of this type of learning state to develop problem-solving skills and a passion for learning, it is crucial that schools pay attention to their curriculum and identify opportunities for students. Every child is different in how they learn best, but the experience they have when they drive their own learning is universal. It is our job as educators to create a community that balances skills with a fulfilling journey of self-discovery.