I haven’t posted in a while, and the reason is schoolwork has snatched all the time out of my hands. It just feels like I’ve constantly had something or the other on my plate at any given moment in time.

The odd thing is though, when I take a step back, I don’t really have all that many tasks, but they just take a strangely long amount of time for me to do. Why is it taking me weeks to work on one (1) physics assignment, that feels like it could be completed within a couple days of work? The reason is in my complete and utter lack of motivation.

That revelation just brought up another question for me, however. This is the final year of school for me. All the assignments and tests and essays matter so much more than they did before, they can decide the fate of my future education. There is more on the line now than ever before, so WHY is that not motivating me to do any work? The answer lies in the idea of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

In a nutshell, intrinsic motivation comes from the joy of doing something. You may be intrinsically motivated to paint simply because you love painting, for example. As the name implies, it’s an internal drive; we push ourselves to do something because we enjoy it and derive satisfaction from it.

Extrinsic motivation then, is anything other than that. Any reason to do a task or an action other than the pure joy of the task itself. These include monetary incentives, recognition, awards, trophies and praise. While those seem like positive things, there’s also negative extrinsic motivators: fear of a deadline, of reprimand, financial liabilities like mortgages and debts. The image below sums it up pretty nicely.

I think my main issue here is that schools rely far too heavily on the pitchfork depicted on the picture, that is, negative extrinsic motivators. Most of the time us students just work on memorizing textbooks to pass tests because we don’t want to fail or have low grades. It’s rare for us to be intrinsically motivated to study or learn, and the few instances that are there are often only for select subjects. But even positive extrinsic motivators aren’t ideal when it comes to learning.

There was a paper by Princeton describing how positive extrinsic motivation is beneficial only in the short term, and in fact can actually be detrimental to intrinsic motivation.

I won’t delve into the mathematical complexity of it here (though it is a fascinating read), but essentially the gist of the idea is that higher rewards are associated with more “unattractive” tasks,” and hence makes us more apprehensive of doing or enjoying them. It cites the interesting example of Tom Sawyer, who asked other kids for bribes to paint the fence for him.

The boys associated the payment they had to give for the task with a fabricated expectation of enjoyment, thus intrinsically motivating themselves. The main takeaway here is that extrinsic motivators tend to instill no long-term passions or drives within people. Hence why I struggle to finish my school tasks. Making them the primary motivator for learning then, which should be a continual and lifelong endeavor, is not the best of ideas.

I don’t think the fact that intrinsic motivation is internal means that it can’t be ignited from the outside. If placed in an environment that emphasizes engaging discussion and holistic learning, I genuinely think students can grow to become intrinsically motivated to learn. And then maybe I won’t procrastinate every single task I’m given.

None of this is to say that external motivators are all bad, of course. They are almost a necessity when it comes to obligatory tasks. However, I think relying on them as a prime motivator for children’s education is highly detrimental and something that definitely needs to be turned around.