The Incentive Myth and Unschooling

During the industrial era, factory owners found that they could improve their employees’ productivity by offering monetary incentives. This worked well for the boring, repetitive nature of factory work, and it continued to work for office laborers where the work was still mostly repetitive and routine. Tasks to complete were spelled out clearly, and all the employees needed to do was follow directions.

The monetary incentive provided sufficient motivation to increase their productivity.

The problem with traditional schooling is that it treats learning like factory work. That it is something unpleasant. Learning it is boring and repetitive, and students need to be bribed (or punished) in order to do it. You memorize x, y, and z, and we’ll give you a carrot. But true learning isn’t factory work. It’s creative work.

Motivation works differently for creative work.

In his book, The Myths of Creativity, David Burkus asserts that management style needs to evolve as employees’ jobs have evolved. According to a recent study by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, almost seventy percent of new jobs created are creative in nature, where there are no set of instructions to follow and creative problem solving is needed.

Multiple studies have found that creativity diminishes in the presence of incentives to be more creative. The extrinsic motivator of money is not powerful enough to activate the creative thinking process. Incentives directly interfere with the creative process. When extrinsic motivators are present, they divert attention away from the problem.

In one study that Burkus cites, the researchers found that work that artists were commissioned to do was rated as less creative by a panel of judges that didn’t know which pieces were commissioned and which were not.

What we need, Burkus points out, is a way to increase intrinsic motivation. When people are excited about a project, when they are interested in it regardless of immediate compensation, that’s when they do their most creative work.

Some businesses have come up with new ways to increase their employees’ intrinsic motivation. Or rather, ways to get out of their employees’ way, and set them free to work from their intrinsic motivation. In creative work, you don’t need to create motivation, because there is plenty of interest and intrinsic motivation inherent in the work already.

They set aside time for their employees to work on projects that they are interested in. Projects that are outside of their daily work. From ten or fifteen percent of a workweek (3M) to a whole month at the company 37 Signals, companies are encouraging their employees to think beyond a prescribed set of duties.

Extrinsic motivation– like a paycheck or a bonus– can compel you to make the car, but intrinsic motivation can spark the idea of how to make the car better. Extrinsic motivation–like a good grade– can make you memorize the primary exports of Angola, but intrinsic motivation can lead you to learn everything you can about the country, it’s history, it’s relationship with neighboring countries.

Think of all the times you learned things in school, because if you did, they would give you an A. How long did you remember what you “learned.” Then think of the times you were interested in something, and learned about it of your own free will.

Learning is inherently creative, not boring or repetitive. When you are following your own intrinsic desire to learn about a topic, you remember what you learned. You think of ways that your knowledge connects to other things that you already know– or other things that you suddenly want to know about.

You come up with ways to find out what you desire to know, unique ways, ways that are suited both to your motivation and the way that you learn and remember things.

Companies want their employees to further the growth of the company. Parents want their children to further their education.

Mostly, like the aforementioned companies, we just need to get out of our children’s way. But, like businesses that have found ways to align their extrinsic motivation with their employee’s intrinsic motivation, as parents, we can find ways to align our desires for a well-rounded education with our children’s desire to  achieve mastery and acquire knowledge.

Games are an ideal facilitator.

Games demand problem solving, but aren’t particular about the way you go about it. For example, to play games successfully, it’s important to know how to keep score. Keeping score involves math. So kids learn enough math to allow them to play the game, but they are free to learn it anyway they want.

Caleb first learned about the concept of negative numbers by playing Dutch Blitz. Being in the red is a novel concept for a four year old, but with the example of the game and help from the other players, he gained a strong concept of adding and subtracting using negative numbers.

By allowing kids to solve problems creatively, games encourage kids to come up with unique methods of learning. The way they learn will be tailored to the way that they learn best, because they are in control.

When we started playing Scrabble, my son couldn’t really read and only knew a small number of simple words. He had to look up every word he wanted to make: going from his letters to a word on a list (rather than thinking of a word and checking his spelling). Games took FOREVER!

But as time went on, he learned words and an understanding of spelling at a ridiculous rate of speed. He thought about words when we weren’t playing. We would be driving along in the car and out of the blue he’d say, “Skating is a seven letter word.” Or one day when he was laying in bed and wasn’t feeling well, he sniffled, “I know how to spell Quiet.”

He tried to figure out the most points you could get from a single play (quizzical was his word, it would span 2 triple letter scores and have the Z on the double letter score spot).

Within 6-8 months of playing regularly, he is now able to beat me (if the stars (tiles) align correctly). He memorized 2 letter words and high-point value words without even trying. He can effectively use -ing endings to get seven letter words. He’s on his way to becoming an excellent Scrabble player, and he is building a strong foundation in spelling and reading.

That’s the power of intrinsic motivation.


Project Tuesday

Project Tuesday is the day of the week where I set aside time to do a project with Caleb. I tried to launch this idea last fall, and it never caught on very well until this year. I realized that mornings are just not a good time for us. In the mornings, I’m either working or thinking about working or we’re playing games together. Mr brainwave was to try doing our project in the evening after dinner. Bingo.

Lesson learned: if your new idea isn’t catching on, try changing the time of day.

Woodworking projects are high on the list, for obvious reasons, but this week Caleb said he wanted to do something with glitter glue.

Google suggested glitter keys, so that’s where we started. We attempted to put glitter glue on the top of the keys and spread it around like the directions said. It was a total failure.

Then we got out newly purchased glitter and Mod Podge. We spread the Mod Podge on the key, and shook glitter all over it, and that actually worked. Ours don’t look as nice as some of the ones you can find online, but at least now we can tell the side door keys apart from the front door keys.


Of course a few keys weren’t enough, so we started making designs on paper with glue and sprinkling it liberally with glitter. Somehow glitter seems to make everything more fun.

Even playdough. We took the excess glitter from shaking it off the paper and dumped into homemade playdough.


There is something wild about measuring out 1/3 of a cup of salt for a recipe.

This is our favorite playdough recipe.

1 cup of flour
2 tsp of cream of tarter
1/3 cup of salt
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon of oil
food coloring (we like to use LOTS)

So far this month for Project Tuesday, we’ve made paper snowflakes and a wooden penny shooter.

For March I have some fun “windy” projects planned. We’re going to make a kite, a wind spinner, and more.


successful life is a life filled with successful habits. But every time I try to establish better habits, I am NOT successful.

To be fair, I have been moderately successful in keeping the house slightly better, being more productive at work, and my diet has improved since I was in college. But I’ve rarely managed to establish habits that make these things automatic, rather than a constant struggle.

Tynan, the man behind a very practical blog, recently published a new book entitled Superhuman By Habit. From his blog, I knew that he had many interesting ideas about creating new habits, so I eventually got around to reading his book (which I read for free with Kindle Unlimited!).

Every Monday, I plan on turning my attention to my habits and using Tynan’s book to illuminate the path ahead.

I will choose 2 habits per month to devote myself to. One will be a subtraction of a bad habit, and the other an addition of a good habit.

“The easiest time to choose a habit is when something is a major impediment in your life, or where there’s one habit that currently extends its negative influence into other areas of your life.” (Superhuman By Habit)

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I binge on tv shows. I can kill most of a day lost in the imaginary world of spies, superheroes, cops, and lawyers. When the fit is upon, it can ruin my life. Or at least put the “life” part of my life on hold.

I’ve tried a variety of ways to stop, and only been temporarily successful.

So first and foremost, my new habits will start with only watching TV on Fridays.

How will I do this?

Tynan points out in his book that our old habits are who we are. It’s the difference between being an early riser and getting up early. Using that thought as my guide, I designed my habit statement as a statement of fact.

I only watch TV on Fridays.

Rather than saying I’m going to try to… or my goal is to… I believe that stating it as a fact will be more motivational to me than “trying” it. So every time I feel the urge to lose myself in all those colorful pixels, I just tell myself, “I only watch TV on Fridays.”

My second habit is an additional thing I want to do every day-cleaning the house.

Now many people already have this habit, and the fact that I can go days (weeks!) without doing more than the dishes and wiping down the bathrooms, would horrify them. Don’t tell my mother!

I’ve tried a variety of things to beat this, but haven’t hit on the key. Again, this time, I tried stating it as a fact:

I clean my house every morning.

I use to send myself an email every morning with these affirmations. So I have to say them out loud to myself every morning. In fact on the first day I did this, I realized that I had not, in fact, cleaned the house that morning, so I started to do it.

My idea of cleaning and your cleaning are certainly not the same. I am giving myself credit on this habit if I spend a mere five minutes straightening things up and wiping things off.

Two or three songs on my ipod, and I can go on with my day.

Well, I’ll report back next Monday with more thoughts on creating good habits. And I’ll let you know if I have missed a day by then.

New Life

For a variety of reasons, I have let the blog slide. It’s hard for me to write when I feel pressed for time or when I feel apprehensive about the future for a specific reason or if I feel like I am not at my best presently. Writing for me comes from a place of peace and safety. When I feel threatened for whatever reason, the words will not come.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, and needed a drink. When I turned on the faucet the flow of water didn’t last long, and I realized the water pipe coming into the house under the porch must have frozen again. Rather than have it freeze harder all night, I dragged myself down there and set the hairdryer next to it (it’s on the ground) and went upstairs to wait for it to thaw.

After it thawed, I couldn’t get back to sleep. The worries and cares of the daylight hours had caught up with me. But sometime between 3am and dawn, as I read my book and thought in turns, I came to some decisions and I determined that I would be okay.

I realized that what was truly important was not where we lived, how much money we had (or not), but the way I responded.

The important things were the relationship with my son, my inner growth, our health, and our outlook on life.

Choosing to live in a van for 6 months, living on less than $500 a month, taught me that we can live anywhere. There is great freedom knowing that whatever happens, that you WILL be okay. If you need to live on beans and bananas and cut off the internet, you can do it. If you need to forgo a furnace one winter, you’ll survive. You can live without a car, and live in a car. All of these things, I’ve done. Sure, I like having a car, I LOVE having a furnace, I love having a house. But life isn’t made up of these luxuries. Life is about living.

Being depressed about your lot in life will ruin the Living. Your relationships will go by the wayside while you worry and try to distract yourself. Your health will go hell if you try to distract yourself with crunchy, salty, sugary snacks. And your inner growth can only be furthered by acceptance and growing, not fear and distraction.

So as I dust myself off, I dust off my blog. I hope you’ll continue to read about my quest for good habits and fun as I make toys, raise my son, and un-school the both of us.

Mondays-I’ll be writing about my struggle to establish useful habits referring to Tynan’s excellent book Superhuman By Habit (free with kindle unlimited).

Wednesdays-I’ll write about our Project Tuesday- the day I facilitate my son’s efforts to make something fun and/or useful.

Friday or Saturday-I’ll put up a unschooling/homeschooling post about the ways that we’ve learned things in the past week.

And of course when I make new toys or have a sale or have other business news to relate, I’ll post it here.