There is much to say about education, and there are many different views of what it means and how to achieve it.
I’ll focus on a topic I think is of utmost importance: the WHY of learning. Motivation.
This plays a crucial role in how people of all ages seek and absorb information and how they perform their work.
Motivation’s root word is “motive,” which means reason. We all do what we choose to do for a reason. A very popular approach to parenting, teaching, training and managing revolves around incentives and rewards as ways to trigger and maintain certain types of behavior
While this can work well for dogs, I feel strongly that this is a less than ideal way of going about educating and leading humans.
” It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” ~ Albert Einstein
There are extrinsic motivators (such as bonuses, gold stars, prizes, and similar carrots) and intrinsic motivators (passion for the specific work, the desire to better one’s performance, curiosity and the love of discovery). We, as parents as well as in management roles, tend to under-estimate the latter, and end up treating others as if nothing would get done in the absence of some sort of external pull.
However, studies on what makes people happy with their jobs have shown time and again that the main motivators aren’t material. Rather, people thrive when they feel their jobs allow them these three intrinsic rewards: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
That is not to say that monetary compensation is irrelevant. Underpaying someone will eventually hurt their performance. But once people are being paid fairly for their responsibilities, additional bonuses are considerably less relevant to their performance as are these three factors.
Autonomy: self-direction, rather than micro-management. We thrive when given the space to make decisions and learn from our successes as well as our mistakes.
Mastery: we love doing what we do well, so there needs to be an opportunity to improve one’s skills and stay on top of what is new in the specific industry you’re in. The inner satisfaction of a job well done, when allowed to blossom, cannot be matched by any type of external pat on the back.
Purpose: we spend many hours each day doing our work. To be most enthusiastic about it, and thus perform at our very best, we need to have a higher purpose for our actions. A company’s core values should be in alignment with the employee’s priorities, and there needs to be a clear way for anyone up and down the ladder to be aware of the impact and meaning their work has in the bigger world. No “casual Friday” can even come close to raising someone’s spirits and desire to do their very best when compared to clear insights into how their work betters the lives of others.
There are companies out there who understand these concepts better than others. A results-only work environment for example is a culture where what you do matters more than the chair you sit on. That is, work hours and a specific work location become much less of a factor (if the nature of the job allows it) as long as the work is being performed well and on time. Similarly, freeing up some of the time to “work on anything” has unleashed creativity in unexpected ways and is benefiting both the employees as well as the employers.
In early education, there are child-centered approaches (such as the Montessori method) where the environment is chosen carefully, filled with materials which present specific concepts and challenges. After a brief, individual demonstration of how a specific material works, there is little need for ongoing correcting intervention from the teachers. The children then are given space to walk around the classroom and choose what they want to work on, with no interruptions (from teachers or peers), for as long as they need to, until they feel they mastered that particular material.
Perhaps the most famous study which showed, shockingly and counter-intuitively to most, that dangling carrots can have a paralyzing effect on creative work is the Candle Experiment. In a nutshell, creative thinking was needed to solve a relatively simple problem. Some people were told they were part of a benchmark group to establish average times to a solution. Another group was told they would win a monetary prize if they complete the task the fastest. The result? The group competing for an external reward took longer to solve the problem than the group working under no such pressure! I believe that the presence of that prize breaks our much-needed concentration, and interrupts our innate voice that drives us to do our best, replacing it with another chatter, focused on external comparisons and concerns. The more intrinsic desire we already had to complete the task well, the more the negative effect of external incentives becomes amplified. Also, the larger the carrot we are pursuing, the bigger the distraction, and thus the drop in performance. What does this mean for you, as a parent, an educator or a manager?
External incentives might result in better performance for those tasks which are repetitive in nature and require little creativity. For work requiring ingenuity however, they have the opposite effect. If you are looking to foster analytical skills and creative problem-solving (in your children or your employees), the best way might be to give them the necessary tools and knowledge, a meaningful quest, then get out of their way.
“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. “ ~ Thomas Jefferson