Internal and external motivation in the context of school

Last updated December 6th, 2023 00:15

Since I have already written here about education and verbal feedback instead of traditional grades, I can’t resist continuing. This time, the topic is internal and external motivation that schools work with, particularly focusing on external motivation in this context. Internal and external motivation in the context of school is a rather complex topic, and it wouldn’t hurt to say something about it. For example, we can consider whether to try doing things differently and instead of relying on external motivation, strive to utilize the internal one.

The difference between them is significant, and I will describe it later using two beautiful examples.

Internal and external motivation in the context of school

In education, external motivation is commonly applied. External stimuli motivate children to learn. Consequently, children learn not because of their own desire for knowledge but because they long for positive evaluation. As a result, we raise children in a way that emphasizes that knowledge is not valuable in itself but rather for the opportunity to receive positive feedback. This applies not only in school but also later in work or personal life.

Factors that support external motivation can be grades, praise, rewards for performance, or punishment for incomplete homework. We are playing the game of achievement. After all, choose for yourself.

However, what is often overlooked is the fact that by educating future generations in this way, we emphasize learning for the sake of grades, praise, or rewards, rather than for personal development. To acquire skills, knowledge, and eventually engage in what we enjoy. Simply because we love it.

Let’s take a look at two interesting examples that beautifully demonstrate how external motivation works in practice.

The Old Man and the Children

Internal and external motivation in the context of school

Let me tell you a story about an old man and a handful of children. The old man lived on the outskirts of the town and, due to his advanced age, enjoyed his peace and quiet. One day, a group of children came to his house and started playing with a ball. They were loud, very loud. This repeated for several days, until the old man had had enough.

He slowly walked up to the children and instead of scolding or arguing with them, he made them a fantastic offer. If they came to his house every day to play and made as much noise as possible, so that everyone would know about them, he would give them 100 korunas for each of those days. The children enthusiastically agreed. The old man kept his promise and indeed, every day the children came, he gave them 100 CZK for playing near his house and making noise.

This continued day after day, throughout the week. However, the following week, the old man approached the children with a sad expression on his face. He told them that he unfortunately ran out of money and could no longer pay them for playing near his house and making noise. This angered the children, and they responded to the old man that if he didn’t have the money, they wouldn’t come to his house to play anymore. They would find another place since they wouldn’t do it for free.

The children left, and they never returned. Old man once again had his peace and quiet, the tranquility he longed for.

The puzzle-building experiment

Internal and external motivation in the context of school

This example will no longer be fictional, but it is a real experiment on people. Two groups of people were invited to participate in the experiment, and their task was to solve a large and relatively complex puzzle. These were people who enjoyed solving puzzles, which is why they volunteered for the experiment. One group was told that solving the puzzle was free, and they would not receive anything. They were doing it solely for their passion. The other group was told that despite their equal enjoyment of solving puzzles, they would be paid for the time they spent working on the puzzle.

Both groups began working on the puzzle until lunchtime when refreshments were brought in. In the first group, only a few people took a break for lunch, while the rest continued working. They were motivated by their internal drive, and lunch didn’t interest them at that moment. They found joy in the process.

In the second group, almost everyone stopped working on the puzzle and left. Here, the external motivation became apparent. People didn’t want to solve the puzzle during lunchtime because it was unpaid time. Despite enjoying solving puzzles, the external motivation in the form of money led them to stop the activity and leave. They returned to solving the puzzle only when the lunch break ended and the activity was paid once again.

Internal and external motivation in the context of school

Both examples clearly demonstrate how external motivation works. In the first example, the old man cleverly made the children leave. The children’s primary motivation was to play for money at his house. They weren’t there because they enjoyed it. In the second example, the same thing happened with the group that solved puzzles for money. Once the paid time ended, this group did not engage in puzzle-solving during that period, even though they had the same passion for it as the group solving puzzles for free. On the contrary, almost all of them stayed. They couldn’t detach themselves from an activity that brought them joy and meaning.

And that’s exactly what we do with children in school. They enter school with a desire to learn about how the world around them functions. How the universe works, how to read and write books, how to do math. And we, or rather the entire educational system, slowly diminish this desire with external motivation until all that remains is the desire for good grades. This desire carries on with us throughout our lives. Work for money, relationships for validation, a fancy car not as a means of transportation but as a social status symbol. There are numerous examples.

Let’s all take a moment to reflect on this together. Isn’t it time for a change? Isn’t it time to do things a little better, differently?

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