Intrinsic Motivation and “The Whole Student”

The Infinite Monkey Theorem describes a very simple problem in probability yet it offers many opportunities for philosophical reflection–and jokes. Given enough time 440px-chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriterand sufficient numbers, a group of monkeys will eventually produce all of Shakespeare. As a teacher, I reflect upon the truth that even the worst educator will “produce” a conventionally successful student, eventually. But this is the result of random outcomes rather than inspired input.

Of course the “means” of teaching is finally judged on the “outcome” of the student. We might evaluate this student at any point along the way–say with a mathematics exam when they are 10. Or we might wait and look at their skills and knowledge during a matriculation exam, as they do in Finland. Either way, we link outcomes to methods (inputs) and ajudge the methods that most often produce desired results.

Am I wrong, or is this how it works? Is this right? If a student at my school, where students range in age from 4-18 years old, ate in our cafeteria every day for 14 years, could I judge the quality of the food by the health of the student? Oh, no, we’d say, there are so many other factors. There is what they ate at home for supper. There’s genetics. There’s random chance. A healthy young adult would suggest the cafeteria’s food is okay, no?

Is it heretical to question papers or exams as the best indicator for determining the best inputs–in this case content and method? I suppose it depends on what we are adjudicating. Are we looking at the “whole student?” It seems to me that this is the way we are going in the US, although with the manic quest for good grades, high test scores, clubs, activities, sports, community service, and so on rather than for healthy, fit, balanced people.

For a moment, I the monkey, am going to remain at my typewriter, happily pounding keys, though I wonder if I really should be trying to produce Shakespeare. It’s already been done and I don’t even know what I am trying to produce really. I only know it when someone tells me I’ve done a good job. Perhaps I should not be trying to produce a “strong student.”

The intense socialization at school, often manifested as resumé building, has for me made these thoughts by Pasi Vilpas newly attractive: “We have been made to believe that what is happening at school is learning,” he writes. “But what is happening at school is school.” He goes on:

  • The school is intended to provide circumstances which are appropriate to determine marks, grades and degrees rather than to learn.
  •  The marks, grades and degrees guide the flow of the students to their higher education, adulthood professions, social relationships and economical status.
  • All learning at school is subordinated to this.
  • Evaluation pays attention predominantly on the adopted facts instead of enthusiasm towards learning.
  • The students lose their strive for independent thinking but become masters of foretelling how the teachers expect them to think.
  • The best performers of this ‘creative thinking’ will be priced with good grade.
  • Co-operation with other students easily lowers the rank of the altruistic ones.
  • This is why co-operatively intended learning so frequently transforms into completely chaotic mess.” And, finally,
  • “What the students truly study in a constructivistic manner, proves to be the teachers.”

A self-referential world of conformity and “guess-what-I-am-thinking.” No wonder students tell me they want to get “straight A’s” and not that they have passion for the subject at hand. If this rings true just a little bit, I think Vilpas’s emphasis on learning not school makes sense. Teachers are to focus “on feeding and protecting the intrinsic motivation of the students[,] directing their orientation toward profound learning.

What “Works” vs. What Matters

What does a well educated secondary-school graduate look like? Rather, what do they know and what can they do? Historian Yuval Harari argues: “Most of what we teach children today, in school, or in college, is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market of 2040, 2050. So it’s not something we’ll need to think about in 2040: we need to think today what to teach the young people.”

As compelling as this declaration sounds, I think it’s a bit vocationally oriented for my taste. Replace “job market” with “world” and I’m on board. Perhaps best practice would be the intersection between student interest and societal need.

Two of my students, avidly listening to a public address by the EU’s Deputy Ambassador to the US, Caroline Vicini on Monday. They felt as if a part of the world they’d never visited before had been opened to them–a country of brilliant adults discussing important issues and creating policy.

My US History students, 16- and 17-years old, have just completed a terrific unit on immigration. After studying the history of immigration since the Civil War, with its emphasis on blocking people of color until the 1965 Immigration Act, they worked in twos and threes to interview recent immigrants to our city.

These interviews took them to day-worker hiring sites, a tienda (small grocery store) owned by a woman who crossed the Mexican desert at 15, to the comfortable houses of Nike employees, and to a well-known local plant store and nursery. They presented what they learned and experienced by making web pages, creating podcasts, and through art. This was “HISTORY,” but it was an event in their lives rather than sitting on the runway, waiting for graduation and take-off.

The assignment demanded many use new computer applications, they researched geography and history, many used their second languages. And they loved it. So why, besides conformity to the structure of colleges (themselves built on 19th-century models) should history be separated from foreign languages, science be separated from math? Why “chemistry,” or “art,” standing alone? Why isn’t “school” a communal encounter with a series of rich questions, which teach content, skills, and passion? In other words the enactment of what is needed most by the students’ many communities: school, home, city, and the broader society. This “need” is not narrow and includes activities related to every traditional discipline.

The world is such an interesting place, saturated with complex problems needing understanding and–solutions. Why not begin there? There is an optimism about a curriculum enmeshed in real life and students quickly pick up on it. The attraction of the exciting topic itself is the “so what?” for the lesson.

Finnish TransversalThese thoughts return me to the Finnish “transversal” I encountered last year. At the center of the goals for secondary education was not college acceptance or a great job. Instead: “development as a human being and as a citizen.” Citizenship is an action, I would say, as is “being human.”

In the valley of the academic year that is March–so far from Winter Break, so far from Spring Break–the temptation to fall back into “content delivery” looms. To sit down at my typewriter at start banging keys. But in this moment–Trump, Brexit, Migration Crisis–I feel compelled to look for hope (hope to sustain myself as a teacher) in my students’ intrinsic motivation. Their desire to learn, that is, rather than to get everything right.



One thought on “Intrinsic Motivation and “The Whole Student”

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  1. I think Pasi Vilpas got it right.

    Your immigration unit could be extended using or creating something like the ‘Welcome, Neighbor’ project we did a couple of years ago. You can get some sense of it at, but you don’t actually see the display panels that combine a professional photograph with excerpts from the oral history interview and a brief blurb on where they come from. I can send a low-res PDF of the panels if you want. We’re also going to be putting together some ideas for teachers to go more deeply into immigration — I’d love to have your thoughts on that.

    You might also consider submitting your work on immigration to Zinn Education Project and/or writing an article for Rethinking Schools on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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