The Internally Motivated Learner

Youth LearningSo what the heck does it mean to be an “internally motivated learner”? Is such an animal the exception or the rule? And can internal motivation drive even formal academic learning? In a culture where conventional wisdom seems to think that most of formal education needs to be mandated and externally motivated to be successfully undertaken, I think these are very important questions.

Certainly infants and toddlers learn most or all of what they learn for internal reasons. Infants don’t need to be motivated or instructed in how to walk, they are driven to do so and through practice, trial, and error they figure out how to do so. Toddlers learn to speak with a minimum of instruction, by listening to people speaking around them and learning to vocalize words and put them together into phrases and sentences. They learn a myriad of other skills involving coordination of their bodies with their brains on their own as well.

Older children learn social skills by playing with other kids and interacting with adults in their lives with perhaps a minimum of instruction (at times unsolicited…*g*). I hear of some kids who learn to read with little adult instruction. I suspect many more could as well once they encounter all the real-world motivations to do so, including being able to read those wonderful stories parents might read to them when those parents are not available for the task.

I say that based on my own kids both learning to type, before they were even teens, unbeknownst to me or their mom, without any external instruction at all. They were motivated by on-line multi-player role-playing games and the player forums that were associated with them.

Those forums in particular, where they often exchanged multi-paragraph posts in the voice of their “in-game” characters, was probably some of the most effective writing training they ever had. Nothing beats writing something that really interests you and that you know will be read and responded to by a number of others. All this was an example of totally internally motivated learning, completely outside the presence of instruction or adult supervision or critique.

In fact, both my kids were fairly accomplished writers by their middle-teen years even though our son left formal school in eighth grade and our daughter after ninth.

Being an internally motivated learner involves saying at some level, clearly (if only to your self), “I want to learn about this” or “I want to learn how to do that”. Once you have freely acknowledged this sort of need, you are much more likely to fully engage all your personal energies and other assets to the task.

We humans are learning machines, but being compelled to learn has a totally different dynamic to it. I have always been good at math and enjoyed much of the advanced math I have learned along the way, including number theory and calculus. But I took my high school math classes because they were required and my college math classes that were also required so I could get that degree in computer science that I was internally motivated to achieve. Interestingly, I have rarely picked up a book on mathematics and never taken a math class that wasn’t required for some larger goal.

Ironically, even though I have worked in information technology for the last 25 years, I have used none of that specific math in my work, and the generic analytical skills maybe indirectly here and there. I think my computer science major was designed to train me for aerospace engineering, a field I never got into, but was big in the 1970s when the University of California curriculum was probably designed.

With the invention and implementation of universal mandatory education in the 19th Century, the view of what motivates a human being to learn completely changed. Prior to this sea change, people had to take their own responsibility to learn or face the consequences of being unable to make their way and earn their living in the world. There wasn’t such a thing as “adolescence”, most young people were able to live in the real adult world by their early teen years.

With the advent of compulsory schooling, there was a paradigm shift. It was now in the state’s interest, and by extension, the state’s responsibility to make sure that everyone had a standardized education that inculcated all these kids from immigrant families with an appropriate set of approved American values. Teaching as a formal “profession” with formal training in certified institutions was invented to facilitate this huge exercise in social engineering. According to John Taylor Gatto, the author of The Underground History of American Education, this shift from personal responsibility to state responsibility, and the general bureaucratization and professionalization of education led to an emerging view that internal motivation was insufficient to get people, particularly kids, to learn what they needed to learn to be functioning adults.

Generation after generation of Americans being required to navigate this compulsory schooling, and a huge and ever growing educational-industrial complex that supports it, has continually reinforced a conventional wisdom that unless kids are forced to go to school, human nature is such that they would choose to learn little or nothing of value to become functioning adults.

In my thinking, this supposed wisdom is a fallacy, as well as going against the basic principles of liberty and self-responsibility our country was founded on. Human beings come into this world, at least for the most part, determined to be all that they can be. We are born learning machines, designed by god, evolution or whatever cosmic forces to be capable of taking ownership in our own development and should be expected, even at a young age, to do so.

If we as a community want to facilitate this learning process we can best do that by trying to create enriched environments, in the real world doing real things wherever possible, and allow and expect kids to choose an environment that best catalyzes their own innate desire to learn. That said, and given nearly 200 years of the conventional wisdom of externally mandated and motivated one-size-fits-all education, I acknowledge that this is a huge paradigm shift that will be difficult for many people to become comfortable with. But I am convinced this is our future, particularly if we envision that future as democratic rather than totalitarian, a partnership between equals rather than a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.

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