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Compliance, Creation, Structure, and Intrinsic Motivation

by Neal Brown, Green Acres School, Head of School

At admission events, I often describe to prospective parents the way in which our students spend much more of their time each day creating rather than complying. It’s not that we want students to disregard adult authority; clearly following directions is a critical skill in school and in life. And it’s not that we want students simply to explore topics and/or their interests in an unbounded way. Clearly, effective teachers develop and communicate precise content and skill goals for their students.

Truly exceptional teachers, though, provide students regular opportunities to learn content and vital academic and life skills through initiative-taking, problem-solving, and creativity. The “structure” of learning in these sometimes messy, noisy classrooms may be less obvious to an observer, but it’s there. The recent NPR story about a Dartmouth College woodworking teacher provides a powerful example of the way that creativity and structure can—and must—go hand in hand.

Of course teaching would be a lot easier if we reverted to a more tightly structured, compliance model. Expectations and learning experiences for students would be less open-ended, less individualized… and much less engaging, exciting, and life-changing. With less engagement, would come less learning—and ultimately, less challenge and lessened opportunities to develop in students an intrinsic motivation to learn. As adults, we know intuitively and from years of experience that we learn best and experience the greatest satisfaction from learning situations that link to our individual interests or needs and that offer opportunities for creativity and initiative-taking. These experiences spur us on to want to learn more, simply for the sake of learning or solving a relevant problem. Why would it be any different for children and teenagers? For us, as with our students, the end game has to be to develop the skills and the desire to face our challenges and to learn throughout life.

A Green Acres parent recently forwarded me an article from the Huffington Post. She wrote, “Articles like this support why a school like Green Acres is so important.” I’d argue that all schools could focus more effectively on developing intrinsic motivation—the true key to a rewarding and successful life. The following excerpt may tempt you to read the rest of the article….”The underlying sentiment.. is that when we teach our children that outcomes are more important than process they lose the ability to enjoy learning for its own sake. Everything becomes about the end-game. The problem is that the end game – whether it turns out as they anticipated or not – is often not intrinsically rewarding.”

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