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Magic Dust for Learning: Intrinsic Motivation

Magic Dust for Learning: Intrinsic Motivation

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Imagine you’re a student and you’ve signed up for an elective class at your school, a class called Sudoku. Cool. Sudoku is a math puzzle, and puzzles are fun and math is important. But that’s all you know. You don’t know how sudoku problems work—only that it’s something about puzzles that involve math. 

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Your first class begins. The teacher, after introducing himself … no, hersel— … uhhhh, him- or herself … 


Oh, that’s going to be awkward. Tell you what, let’s roll the dice. If we roll an odd number, the teacher is a woman. It it’s even, it’s a man …  

… It’s odd. 


Your teacher, after introducing herself, puts a sudoku problem on the board. She explains fully and clearly how a sudoku problem works. She then fills in the blanks, showing the solution to the problem. “Remember this problem,” she says flatly. “It might be a on test some day.”


The teacher then proceeds to show you another sudoku problem, then another. For each, immediately after showing you the problem, she also shows you the solution. And each time she says, “Remember this. It might be on a test some day.”


Day after day you return to the assigned classroom, at the assigned time, for the Sudoku class. The problems get more difficult, but it’s OK—the teacher always shows you the answers. This goes on for weeks. 


Now, imagine an alternative reality … Wait. Can I call these realities, since we are only imagining them? … OK then—scenarios. Imagine an alternative scenario. 


In this scenario too, you sign up for the Sudoku class. But the teacher, after writing the first problem on the board, says, seemingly perplexed, “What are we supposed to do with this?” 


Then she—no, he— no, wait. (Where did I put that die? … Odd again.) Then she thinks out loud for the students, incorporating whatever comments the students offer into a cohesive thought process. She adds her own thoughts to the mix only when and if all the students are stuck. The students get caught up in the mystery; they become intellectually and affectively engaged. They forget about the time and about the classroom walls around them. It is as if a spell has been cast over them. Bit by bit it the group figures out together what the nature of the puzzle is, and bit by bit the problem gets solved. 


The teacher puts another problem on the board and lets each student think about it and work with it on their own before again facilitating a solution arrived at through input from the group. 


Like the class in the first scenario, the problems get harder and harder over time. But in this scenario, the teacher never feeds the answers to anyone; rather she gives hints and guidance only to the degree that the students need it in order to reach the solutions to the problems. And each time the students get caught up in the quest, enchanted by the challenge. 


So — which class do you want to be a student in? Why? Which class will you enjoy more? Which class will you learn better in? Why? 

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It is often said that children have a natural zest for learning. I believe that to be true (I happen to think adults do as well), but this natural zest can be compromised and undermined—even crushed and squelched—if the students are studying in order to win external rewards—for example, grades or the approval of others. When learning becomes a means to an end, and not the end itself, something precious has been lost. 


Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, means that learning is its own reward. A teaching approach that taps the student’s natural inquisitiveness and curiosity fosters intrinsic motivation. When what happens in the classroom is an adventure, an exploration, a journey of discovery, the innate fire and desire for learning are the motive force for learning. And that is a powerful force. 


If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you know that I think of language as a puzzle. Providing puzzles as a path to language learning is one of the many ways we as teachers can tap into our students’ natural desire to figure things out for themselves. There is no greater gift that you can give your students than to nurture and nourish their own inner zest for learning. Sprinkle that magic learning dust liberally! 
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Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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