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.


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