Revisiting Internal Motivation

July 12, 2014

There is a tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in teaching mathematics. Our answer to the classic student questions Why do I need to learn this? is a good measure of where we look for motivation. You can appeal to the extrinsic, or instrumental, rewards: you need math to succeed in get a good grade, to succeed in middle school, high school, college math, to get a good job, and so on. And of course, that’s what a lot of people do.

On the other hand, you can take the tougher route of appealing to the intrinsic rewards. You need to learn math because it is beautiful, challenging, elegant, amazing. The reward of math is that it is engaging right now, in the present moment, and you should learn it because something in you needs to know it.

Any reader of this blog knows where we stand. Our name is Math for Love, after all. (Early motto: the only reason to do math is for love.)

Sidenote: Creating the conditions that encourage the growth of intrinsic motivation is nontrivial; it defies the casual effort. It is one of the central jobs of a teacher, and the reason that teaching is a serious profession.

In a recent talk at Los Alamos, Bill Gates described the difficulty of reforming education as greater than the difficulty in curing malaria.

New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated.”And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students,” Gates said.

If we could automate what it takes to instill curiosity, passion, and love for a subject in a group of kids, then there wouldn’t be much of a reason to respect the work of teaching. But the nut of creating student motivation from tech solutions has barely begun to be cracked. In fact, it’s precisely because motivating is so deviously hard that teaching ranks as one of the most interesting and respectable professions (in my eyes at least. And in the eyes of those nations that tend to have more well-educated populations.) Not surprisingly, those who don’t understand how difficult creating motivation is are the same ones who malign teachers.

Sub-sidenote: Gates might have been in the camp that thought education reform was easy and teaching was rote before. If so, it sounds to me like he’s coming around. Nothing like working in education to see how hard it is to change it. There’s a possibly apocryphal story about some founding father—I forget which one—who tried and failed to reform schools, so went on to found the country… an easier job.)

A natural reaction when considering intrinsic vs. instrumental motivation would be to conclude that trying to motivate students using both internal and external rewards would be the best way to go. But new research hints that two motives may not be better than one. In the study described by its authors Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz, the researchers surveyed over 11,320 West Point cadets and found that among those with strong internal motivations, those with powerful extrinsic motives actually did worse in every capacity—graduation rates, performance in the military, etc.—than those without them.

In other words, extrinsic motivations may perhaps weaken the long term power of love the work. If this is really true and applies more broadly, it suggests that wanting the money, fame, renown, etc. from doing great work actually gets in the way of achieving it. We get external prizes when we take our eyes off them, and focus on our passion for the real work.

In other words: the only reason to do math is for love.

There’s more to say about motivation, and the depth and complexity of it will always make teaching a fascinating profession. But for now, I’ll leave you with this wonderful RSAnimate video of Dan Pink on the counterintuitive nature of motivation.

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