No, Learning Doesn't Have To Suck (We Just Do It For Different Reasons)


Recently Jonathan Fields did a blog post entitled: Does Learning Have To Suck? In case you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I wanted to comment on it, but after some consideration, realized I had more to say about it than I thought. So, you get what you have here.

Now I really dig Jonathan’s style. I think he’s smart and articulate and has a pretty good grasp on most things involved with business. However, he recently wrote a post about  extrinsic motivation, and this really perked my interest. Seeing as I’m a behavior modification guy, especially with regard to children, I decided to take it upon myself to do a post about Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation.

If you don’t feel like reading his blog (a mistake to be sure), then I’ll sum up the story. Basically he offered his daughter an iPod if she was able to accomplish her homework goals. Through various trial and error, he was able to get her to do the homework she needed to do.

The conversation in Does Learning Have To Suck? then spilled over into whether or not learning has to be extrinsically motivated. The discussion went back and forth between those who thought that learning should be about things that motivate the child intrinsically (and not all this other stuff they’re taught in school) and that there is an importance to learning things in school, even if they’re boring.

I have worked on countless behavioral plans with my clients and their parents, many of which are frustrated with a child’s lack of desire to do the work effectively. Some would say this has something to do with the curriculum at the school itself, but I disagree. Here is my take on what the heck is up with some kids, and why they bore of information so quickly.

1. Television(and video games, and friends, and the internet) is way more fun. It could be that children are exposed to hours upon hours of television from the age of 2 onward. Compared to the bright lights and fast moving, cartoon weilding, technicolor circus, is it any wonder why school is so boring?

2. Curiosity and Playfulness are stifled due to being forced to be quiet in class. Children start learning in First grade that they have to be quiet and sit still in class. Order and routine are necessary for teachers to be able to handle such large amounts of students. The Montessori Method is different in this, as it teaches learning through all five senses, and encourages curiosity and a desire to learn through experience. This is why atheletes are motivated to excel, because they have an intrinsic desire to learn more.

3. Some parents just don’t want to fight with their kids over homework. Since the age of the elimination of corporal punishment, some children have learned that if they push the right buttons, they can get a parent to crack, and as a result, the parent gets held hostage. Some parents even avoid the homework situation entirely for fear of another blowout between them and their kids. This is when I encourage Extrinsic Motivation for children, simply because it allows the parents to use a motivator to get the child to do what they want. After all, that’s real world stuff, right?

Go ahead, tell me you’re bribing your kid, and then tell me you’re going to your job every day for free.

Ah, but it can be bigger than that, can’t it? What if the parent were to use an Intrinsic Motivator as an Extrinsic Motivator? Here’s what I mean:

I have a client who loves to skateboard. He always wants to learn new tricks, and is way more interested in learning this than his homework (duh, speeding down a halfpipe at 30-50mph and then breaking gravity? who wouldn’t want to do that?). The parent was frustrated and brought the kid to me. Turns out, the parent had the tools all along. All s/he had to do was offer time at the skate park as a motivator to do the work, and suddenly the work started to get done. The kid does his homework, and learns new tricks. Everyone’s happy.

Additionally, I worked with the kid and used skateboarding to illustrate cool science concepts, like gravity and velocity. We then talked about Geometry and Physics, and how a half pipe is really kind of a circle cut in half. Every time he goes up and comes back down (Newton’s Law in action), his speed allows him to break free from gravity, if only for a short time.

He then told me I was really smart. Little does he know…

Fact is, Extrinsic Motivation is kind of a cultural norm. Sure, it’d be nice if we could all just get along and do things for the fun of it. But there are a lot of boring jobs out there that pay well. Heck, I had to make that decision myself (Rock Star – because you know they hand out diplomas for those…or Shrink, which doesn’t pay as well as TV says we do…I’m still waiting for my awesome fountain).

Most jobs are in one of two categories: Ones you love (and pay poorly) and ones you hate (and pay well). Sometimes you get the short end of the stick on all fronts, but you get the idea. Anyone who sets out on a career does so for one of those two reasons, and hopefully you are able to find balance in there somewhere.

My point is, learning is part of growing up. Part of growing up is also figuring out what you want to do with your life. That changes as you grow, but I think its healthy for kids to understand how the world works, and also have dreams and goals to shoot for as well. Besides, even if you learn about “how the world works” doesn’t mean that it has to work for you the same way. You can always beat the odds, and do something different (like loving your job and getting paid well to do it).

Everyone is different. The way one person learns and gets through school might be completely different than another. I’m horrible at test taking, but breezed my way through college and grad school through writing papers. Some things we will learn because we have to, and some because we want to. If that means it sucks along the way, but we end up getting something for our efforts, I’m kinda OK with that.

What do you think? Can a kid have it both ways? To learn, love it and want to learn more? Gimme what you got!