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Science of Learning: Extrinsic Learning in Education

After talking about both extrinsic and extrinsic motivation, how does this apply to education? I’ll start by touching on some of the extrinsic motivators in education that get us and our students to play our part.

In formal education, the further along you progress, the more extrinsic the motivators become. By the third grade, children are worried about the mistakes they make, and the grades they get. At a young age, mistake avoidance becomes a primary motivator – mistake avoidance in order to look good (learning through mistakes is a future topic). All too soon grades become the primary motivator. Where you stand in the classroom rankings becomes all important. This obsession is replaced soon enough with the motivation to gain a qualification, and the quality of the qualification (which relies on grades) becomes an obsession. The qualification is all about getting a good job, and that becomes the primary focus as formal education draws to a close. Over 70% of this year’s incoming cohort of students listed getting a good qualification in order to get a good job as the primary reason for coming to university. Where is the learning?

Education has moved into a phase where grades, qualifications, and standardized tests, all extrinsic motivators, have become the most important activity in the sector. As the educators, themselves, find themselves increasingly under scrutiny for their activities, the measures used to determine their performance pushes the educators more and more into focussing on the extrinsic motivators, extinguishing the intrinsic motivation that comes when you see the light of understanding go on in your learners.

We know from basic behavioral theory that carefully placed reinforcers are powerful in changing behaviors. Using reinforcers (and punishments), you can get a bear to ride a bicycle. Given that teachers are reinforced by producing higher scores on standardized tests, producing higher grades with their students, and getting a higher standard of qualifications, is it any wonder that they work to this end. The reinforcements come from educational administrations, students, and parents. Very powerful forces in the lives of teachers. As the grades go up (overall), the teacher is rewarded, as the administration is happier, the parents are happier, and the students are happier. It becomes a virtuous cycle of reinforcement (all extrinsic) that pushes everyone into the game and makes it very difficult to maintain any semblance of intrinsic motivation for learning. And this doesn’t even consider the paycheck to meet the mortgage payment.

Since we know that the awarding of extrinsic motivators will extinguish intrinsic motivation, being in education as a student or a teacher will eventually take the love for what we do as learners out of our lives and replace it with a love for praise, grades, paychecks, recognition, qualifications or whatever else ends up being the reason we do what we do.

We may want to fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t one of those who gets sucked into the game, but in order to stay out of the game is a constant battle. Classical behaviorist techniques are powerful forces for any organism. Whatever the critics may say, Pavlov’s dogs still salivated at the bell. Behavioral techniques have been shown to simply work – not as well as the fanatical early adherents – but they still work well.

A moment of self-reflection will show most of us that where we are with our motivations is probably not where we want to be. However, we can win in the struggle to change our motivations, but it is difficult, soul-wrenching, and usually, involves changing some of what we do.

I’ll present some of what we know about the internalization of motivation tomorrow. With motivation being one of the most important factors in both education and our lives, it is worth trying to understand how it works.

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