The Great Education Thinkers on Intrinsic Motivation

The concept of intrinsic motivation is the obvious question most educators dance around but rarely explicitly address. The greatest solutions in education must be centered on finding that thing within the student which ignites their own drive to learn. Both the definition of the school itself as well as the conception of a lesson plan has to be considered. 

There is large body of literature on intrinsic motivation and consensus points to social constructivism as the pedagogy suited for fostering it. Social constructivism is a learning theory which states that students construct new knowledge through assimilating and rectifying new experiences with established knowledge. The social aspect suggests that knowledge is not just locked in individual minds but spans the classroom, groups beyond the classroom, and even entire cultures. Knowledge is thereby substantially dependent on culture.

While current education theory research fine tunes and explains variations and nuances within the social constructivism sphere, the notion has been championed by the great thinkers on education theory over the past 100 years. The lineage of social constructivism is strong. Upon reading authors such as Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, Holt, Friere, and Waldorf, one can see a clear, common, emergent theme as they each make their case for the ultimate form of education. 

Indeed, I believe they are all trying to do the same thing. They all ask and attempt to answer these two questions:

  • What should the setting look like to create as much context and rationale for learning?
  • How should lessons be structured to create as much context and rationale for learning? 

Here is an overview of some of the great thinkers on the subject: 

  • Maria Montessori describes an ideal ‘prepared environment’ which invites the student into a ‘cosmic’, almost spiritual connection to the universe. If presented deftly, students are naturally drawn into the grandeur of the universe and seek to study it.
  • John Dewey speaks of learning as a process, not a preparation. It is something to enjoy in the moment, not solely for use in the future. If students are active participants in the education process, they will pursue learning for the sake of learning. 
  • Vygotsky’s 'Zone of Proximal Development' idea claims the sweet spot in learning lies in tasks lying just barely beyond  the current knowledge base of students. If something is too easy, student are bored. If something is too hard, student are too frustrated. The underlying objective, again, is finding where learning is enjoyable and engaging thereby fostering intrinsic motivation. 
  • John Holt began his journey to becoming a radical homeschooling enthusiast by noting how regular lecture and test directly erodes intrinsic motivation. Un-contextualized ideas, forced onto students through the teacher from the state, do not foster a love of learning. 
  • The Waldorf model sees that intrinsic motivation flowers forth from the limitless imagination of kids. If you let that freely flourish, inviting kids to learn some basic skills surrounding the imaginative ideas is a breeze. 
  • Paulo Friere, in contemplating how to inspire whole cultures into awareness of injustices in an effort to inspire revolutionary action, begins by prescribing months and years of humble interviewing and learning, by the teachers, of the society, even before the first lesson is created. The teacher must teach by first learning from the students. Through humility, students will trust teachers and be compelled to learn. And only then can lessons have proper context and have real meaning.