The mystery behind the motivation to learn

Picture 012a3 No matter how much we dissect the functioning of the brain to illuminate how people learn, the bigger mystery is what causes people to learn. Typically when someone dives down into what why some people excel at learning they will come back up with “intrinsic motivation” as an answer. However an intrinsic motivation to learn is simply another way a saying a person has as a strong internal desire to learn.  We still know nothing about how this drive to learn occurred.

Let us step back from the realm of learning question why people are motivated to do any action. Typically it is because:

  • they think they must
  • they believe they will gain something.

Thinking that one must do something is accompanied by threat of loss. For example a man believes he must have a job because otherwise he would lose the respect of others due to poverty, or even die of starvation and exposure. However a man may decide he must steal for the same reason.

Believing one will gain something emphasizes working towards a goal more than avoiding a loss. A man may go beyond what is expected of him at work because he believes he can gain a promotion which gives him more money and a higher status. One the other hand the motivation to gain the promotion may lead to him deceiving his boss and backstabbing other employees.

The tricky thing is no clear cut line exists between why a man works. Is it to avoid poverty or gain wealth? Also, the same motivation may lead to helpful or harmful action.

Now let us return to the motivation for learning. People learn because they think they have to. The threat of a failing grade or losing a job. However if a person learns because of the belief that this will lead to some kind of gain, it really is not intrinsic. Students may study to make the grades to get into an Ivy League college to earn money, or status or feeling of superiority over others. In each case there is an outside motivation.

Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University has proposed that there is no such thing as truly intrinsic motivation. This concept has arisen because the goals that motivate students to learn vary widely. One may be motivated to get good grades to please parents, another may be competing with fellow classmates and a third may satisfy curiosity and a need for novelty by learning new things. However, we should not force the idea on educators that all students should be learning to satisfy their curiosity. Some simply do not have the need for novelty that others do.

Finally, when I consider the idea of intrinsic motivation for learning, I think of people who proudly announce how much they love to learn. This announcement shows that their learning in not completely based on an internal drive. A person who learned just for the sake of learning would not find the need to tell anyone else. So I suppose if a truly intrinsically motivated learner existed, we would never know who it was.


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