Intrinsic Motivation

It’s a hard concept to get, it takes a while; some of the students are just now starting to come around after six weeks. This idea, this notion of self-directed learning, intrinsic motivation, life long learning, the world is your classroom, that learning is a luxury to take joy in.  I am a fortunate product of the alternative school movement of the late sixties and early seventies.  About 60 of us were chosen to form a school within a school. Thirty were the brainiac kids that were bored with the standard fair, and the other 30 were, well, us, the ones that might tarnish the schools prestigious image.  We designed our own curriculum.  I got exposed early to learning outside of the classroom, and I remember it hit me like a ton of bricks one day that I was learning so much away from school. Even seasoned teachers we have trained have had a hard time with self-directed learning; they want the (false) security of the textbooks, the lesson plans, and the summative assessment tools (tests). We steel our resolve, exercise our patience, strategize and nudge.

We made some big strides the other day.  We had just told the students that we wanted them to think of the people we were meeting as their teachers, to engage them, to learn from them and to ask questions. Unscheduled and unknown to us Paul walks in, right on queue. A semi-retired professor, and an ornithologist with a PHD from Cornell, and a fantastic human being. He is down with a group of researchers working on conservation issues. He took us for most of the day on a walk to the edge of the mangroves, where he wove birding and conservation with literature and… Zen and the art of living?  At the end of our walk he excused himself, he came prepared with his bathing suit under his clothes, to float on the outgoing tide along the Mangroves out into the lagoon. A few students followed his lead. I hope our paths cross again.

So the students work at shedding their Pavlovian conditioning, some still waiting for the bell to ring, for the subject to change, for someone to tell them what to do, when to do it, and how many points it will be worth. Meanwhile we wait, for self-direction, knowing it is the only reward to attach to learning.

By: Tom Weistar

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