Intrinsic motivation doesn’t come out of nowhere

Lately, I've been hearing from a lot of educators about encouraging only intrinsic motivation and eschewing extrinsic motivation in students.

I like the idea in theory. In reality, however, students still need to learn, regardless of what their motivations are. If you can't convince a student to be intrinsically motivated, there are essential skills she still has to master.

More importantly, I think all of us can think of times we were initially extrinsically motivated to do something and then later found ourselves intrinsically motivated. For example, this guy Amit Peled happens to be a world-class cellist playing Pablo Casals' cello... and this guy also happens to have had no real "intrinsic" love of music or the cello to begin with, according to his interview with NPR:

But I started to play there, and I started to play because of love for a girl, not love for music.

He saw a girl he liked who played cello, and so he wanted to be with her, so he played cello. Then he ended up loving cello, never even saw the girl again.

Don't we all have some story like that?

When I was a first-year high school student, I was extremely unathletic and hated pretty much anything to do with sports. I decided to join the track team because I thought there should be some kind of extracurricular activity on my college application. That's right—I did it for college. I didn't care about athleticism or health or competition or running. I thought it would look good. Total extrinsic motivation.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I was quickly won over by the teamwork, camaraderie, sense of achievement, and challenge of competitive running. I learned to love running.

So, as educators, when we talk about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, we should realize, just as we did in our own lives, our students also sometimes need some extrinsic motivation to get them involved enough to finally cultivate some intrinsic motivation.

Anyone (not independently wealthy) who thinks extrinsic motivation isn't ever necessary, go ahead and decide to do your job for the satisfaction of it and just ditch your paycheck altogether. Extrinsic and intrinsic are not mutually exclusive motivations.

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