Element 20:

The Motivational Problem

“Many of the best intentional efforts to foster new learning disciplines flounder because those leading the charge forget the first rule of learning: people learn what they need to learn not what someone thinks they need to learn.” – Peter Singe

goldmanreprimanding[1]We are now finding that the carrot-and-stick approach, to education called authoritarianism, which dominates virtually every learning institution in the world, may itself be a major inhibitor of the very learning these institutions are trying to create. This is because authoritarian learning systems fail to effectively stimulate our Meaning Network.

In their efforts to direct learning and influence behavior, authoritarian systems rely on three major components:

  1. Control by forces outside of the learner;
  2. Use of reward and punishment; and
  3. General disregard for what the learner holds as meaningful.

As the 21st century dawns, science is revealing the unsettling evidence that internal motivation, not authoritarian learning, is the best method of activating the Meaning Network and creating the neurological change that is the basis of learning, creativity, and behavioral development. In this element, future newsletters and the book Cracking the Learning Code, we will focus on the limitations of extrinsic motivators: rewards (smiley faces, good grades, money, and love) and punishments (demerits, bad grades, loss of money, and the withdrawal of love) to create learning and behavioral change.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of the motivational problem

External Versus Internal Motivation

The word motivate comes for the Latin motivus, which means “to move.” While external motivation gets us to move in directions that are meaningful to others, internal motivation compels us to do things that are meaningful to us. This is not a subtle difference.

selfmotivation[1]The stimulation of the Meaning Network, which we examined in the last few elements, is responsible for creating intrinsic motivation. Anytime we act in ways that are personally meaningful, all the brain structures and neurochemical systems, which produce profound learning, long-term memory, creativity, and joy, are automatically activated. Conversely, when we are prompted to perform acts ladled out by overly authoritarian systems, the evidence shows that the ability to self-stimulate those same brain structures and neurotransmitter systems decreases. External motivators also have the capacity to increase stress hormone levels that can cause dire consequences ranging from withering neural connections and killing neurons to creating neural tangles and promoting impulsive behaviors. In addition, external motivation has also been linked to boredom, burnout, and the weakening of the bond between mentor and student. The most damaging effect, however, may be to breed out our ability to access personal meaning in our own lives, which forces us to seek out sources of extrinsic motivation. This is a primary culprit in many people’s inability to find meaning in their lives and may be the basis of the psychological condition we call codependency.

Motivation Problem a Myth

One of the biggest problems that schools and corporations have in getting students and employees to learn and behave in specific ways is called the “motivational problem.” When people fail, we cry, “They are unmotivated,” but, in fact, everyone is simulated in some way. The problem is that we are not always motivated to move in the directions that authority wants us to go.

Our educational system wrongly sees students who join gangs, take drugs, get skin piercings, skip school, or get pregnant as unmotivated. The truth is these children are highly inspired. Such rebellious activities all take a substantial amount of effort and internal motivation. Corporations also wrongly see workers who goof off as unmotivated. Yet unproductive employees have to be energized to expend the effort necessary to escape projects, pretend to be working, and hide from the boss. When we say employees and students are not motivated, what we are really saying is that people are not behaving like the standardized machines that authority can make perform in the exact ways it wants.

Internal motivation springs from personal meanings. People seek out what has meaning to them, whether it is designing a rocket, composing a sonata, writing a computer program, goofing off at work, getting a tattoo, skipping school, or getting pregnant at 14.

hallway[1]MIT professor Peter Singe notes, “Many of the best intentional efforts to foster new learning disciplines flounder because those leading the charge forget the first rule of learning: people learn what they need to learn not what someone thinks they need to learn.” Motivational specialist Raymond Wlodkowski notes, “I never used the expression ‘motivate achild.’ That takes away their choice, all we can do is influence how they motivate themselves.”

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How the learning problem isn’t with unmotivated learners but with schools and corporations that don’t help learners find personal meaning.

Why most of the billions of dollars spent on corporate motivational efforts that promise TVs, stereos, vacations, and trinkets is wasted because these extrinsic motivators do little to alter the neural networks that are the foundations of our behaviors.

How, once extrinsic motivators (from the simple fanny slap to long-term imprisonment) have been removed, individuals revert almost immediately to their previous behavior patterns. A perfect example is that more than two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested within three years of their releases!

How programs that pay teens not to get pregnant have been a failure because the external motivation of money does little to stimulate the internal meaning/value networks of a young girl.

How 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, create neurological change in addicted individuals by stimulating the neurological structures which house intrinsic motivation.

Why, like a “sugar high,” motivational speakers have such a short-term effect on people’s performance.

How a study of over 4,000 students showed that external motivators impaired learning, thinking, memory, and problem-solving.

How students that were rewarded for taking an IQ test scored 14 percent lower than the non-rewarded students.

How numerous studies show that, in everything from painting and writing to puzzle solving and job performance, creativity suffers in the face of outside rewards and punishments.

How an overabundance of extrinsic motivators can kill the joy in your life.

Why extrinsic motivators can make us appear less smart than we are.

How employee burnout appears to result from a job that has high extrinsic motivation and low personal meaning.

How learning institutions that rely on what is meaningful to the individual see an increase in creativity and a reduction in behavioral problems.

How taking tests produces the kind of stress that inhibits the very learning and creativity we demand from our learning systems.

How Einstein felt his creativity was so damaged by the educational system that he “found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year.”

How to develop learning strategies that create intrinsic motivation, creativity, lasting memory and profound behavioral change.

To help you understand more about the motivational problem and how we can solve it, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education