Curiosity + Autonomy [Motivation 101]

You’re curious about things, right? Take a few minutes, maybe look over your Google search history, and ponder whether you really ever needed anyone to motivate you to learn.

Correct Answer: False. You may have needed them to motivate you to learn things that they told you to learn. But to learn about things that spark your curiosity? Evolution designed us to seek information relevant to survival within our given cultures. Humans are born in a frighteningly helpless state. Where other species are born with toolboxes of instincts for survival, humans are born with the instinct to learn. We are born curious.

But back to the stuff that we weren’t curious about. Curricula and grading had to replace curiosity in motivating students to learn specific things at a specific pace. The people who made us memorize specific information couldn’t predict how easy it would become to access information. They legitimately thought this was a productive use of time.

And now we use Google to satisfy our curiosities. Or even Facebook. But is curiosity sufficient to motivate human learning? And can it be supplemented?

Sufficiency depends on goals. Education goals have varied over time. But the time is now. And now, we’re writing this. And we want education to target cultivating empathetic, empowered humans. On that path, we’ll find creativity and problem solving abilities feeding intelligence and collaboration.

So let’s get this myth-busted motivator out of the way first. Grades suck. Grading is counterproductive in at least the following ways: It decreases interest. It decreases understanding. And it decreases challenge-seeking. Woof.

But grading isn’t the only demotivator in sheep’s clothing. It’s all rewards and punishment models, pretty much.

So if you’re still looking for motivation supplement pills, here they are: Freedom and Modeling. Freedom is a pretty easy pill to swallow. You might not want to hand over all that freedom, but it doesn’t involve a ton of effort. And if you really don’t want to, don’t. But if all you need is the proverbial sugar, here it comes: Curiosity is a very intense and very basic impulse that triggers better learning and memory. It’s science.

Now modeling. Effort all day. But we’ve all seen plenty of irrefutable evidence. The young ones with their extra rapid firing mirror neurons, they imitate our actions as fast as we can regret them. But before I can be accused of misrepresenting neuroscience, see for yourself how important social and cultural context is to learning.

(And if you guessed that Freedom and Modeling represent our formula for the schooling environment of the future, you win a free subscription to our emails. Just head on over here to claim your prize.)

Speaking of schooling environments of the future. Here’s Sugata Mitra, who found that if you put one hundred computers in the walls of impoverished sections of India and come back three months later, you’ll end up with 30,000 computer-literate children.

And there’s something else to this. If he installed one hundred ping pong tables it’s possible he might not have discovered 30,000 Forrest Gumps a few months thereafter. It’d be tough to deny that our natural human curiosity targets progress, too.

So. Will curiosity motivate your child learn to read? Absolutely. By age 5? We really don’t know. By age 8? Still don’t know. If not, what we do know is that your kid will catch up. Self-directed learners become literate in literate cultures. Always. Literally.

Math, though? Everyone hates math, right? No one is curious about math, right? Enough rhetorically sarcastic questions for one day. Math is relevant in our culture, so your kid will learn math.  People hate math because traditional schooling made us do it in an overtly demotivating way. If you dislike and/or are not good at math, you can definitely blame traditional schooling for that.

Chemistry? Maybe even chemistry.

Will your kid watch OneDirection videos on YouTube all day for her entire thirteenth year of life? Maybe. That does not sound awesome but note that with some adults around modeling a deeper interest in music, this apparent waste of time will eventually expand out of her tweenage culture and into something far more productive than traditional schooling offers.

All human learning happens through cultural influence. So some other places in the world might deliberately restrict the freedom required to indulge curiosity and the progress it can bring for deeper cultural reasons. But if there’s one unifying cultural theme in the US, it’s freedom. And that’s why it belongs in our education. We perform better with autonomy:

When we tell a child what to learn, we subvert his or her ability to discover what he or she finds interesting and to identify what is relevant in the world (temporally, locally, and globally), and determine how to reconcile the two into a positive and viable existence: a purpose.

Autonomy allows us to develop curiosity into purpose. Here’s Dan Pink to explain how much more effectively this motivates humans compared to all the rewards we’re told we’ll underperform without.

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