October 19, 2021

Steve Nelson: What Turns Kids On

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Steve Nelson’s substack–First Do No Harm–considers the issues of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation with students.

Children’s intrinsic motivation is natural and powerful.  Curiosity is endless.  Why? How?  Where?  Exploration and discovery are a child’s daily work.  Any parent or caregiver can testify to this obvious proposition.  When children begin more “structured” schooling and discovery is replaced by instruction, intrinsic motivation begins to decline as extrinsic factors dominate.  Test scores, report cards, red marks on paper, “good” work displayed, “right” answers praised, mistakes punished.  The cumulative impact is the virtual extinguishing of intrinsic motivation (in school) by eighth or ninth grade. The “father” of cognitive psychology, Jerome Bruner, wrote extensively about social relationships and context as a critical variable in language development.  As Bruner points out, learning becomes steadily de-contextualized as children move from grade to grade. As school becomes more controlled, more about instruction than exploration, more about abstraction than experience, children’s natural intrinsic motivation declines.

Then the stakes get even higher. Tests increase in frequency and duration. Expectations around college and achievement ratchet up. Grade point averages, honor roles, valedictorians, salutatorians, class ranks, and honor societies – all of these forms of extrinsic motivation are ubiquitous.

The absurd apotheosis of this transition can be seen in this anecdote:

Many faculty members at highly selective colleges report that their high-flying students are not only stressed and depressed, but alarmingly incurious.  After all, they’ve been conditioned to answer questions, not ask them.  They sit with notebook in hand, diligently recording the professors’ points of view so as to accurately reiterate them on the next exam or writing assignment.  One lovely student who heard me rant on this topic in high school, grabbed the brass ring of Princeton admission despite maintaining her mental health and asking plenty of questions.  At her first fall break, she stopped by my office.  

(I paraphrase) “Steve!  You were so right! At the start of the semester, in a small freshman class, the professor asked us to write an essay – no grade – to get an idea of our interests and writing ability.  A student asked, ‘What should we write about?’  ‘Whatever you wish to write about,’ he replied.  ‘But give us an idea of what you want,’ chirped another student.  ‘I don’t care,’ he replied with mild irritation.  ‘Write about whatever interests you.’  ‘But, but . . . what are we supposed to be interested in?’”

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