When thinking about the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of learning, the WHY question might be the most important.

Why would you choose to learn something? Maybe that isn’t a question you have ever been asked before.

In many ways the issues surrounding WHY make up the very fundamentals of u.school. Our mission statement, “Growing Self-Directed Learners who are competent, confident, and caring” is really all about creating learners who can successfully answer the WHY question.

It all starts with motivation.

It isn’t uncommon to hear a thought like this, “Kids today just aren’t motivated.” Or maybe you have heard, “You have potential. You just need to be more motivated.” Or perhaps, “How do I get you to be more motivated?”

All of these make the assumption that motivation is like gasoline, an ingredient that you can add to a fuel tank and make the engine go. But motivation isn’t like gasoline.

In fact, it is important to dig a bit deeper and look at different types of motivation. In a simple formulation you can think of two different types of motivation.

  1. Intrinsic Motivation: Think of it as motivation that comes from within yourself. Your curiosity, interests, passions.
  2. Extrinsic Motivation: Think of it as motivation that comes from the outside. Rewards and punishments like grades, paychecks, etc.

These two types of motivations are quite different.

With intrinsic motivation the task you are doing is its own reward. Doing the task is fun, interesting, engaging, satisfying, challenging, rewarding on its very own.

With extrinsic motivation the task is a means to an end. Doing the task is a way to avoid punishment or receive a reward.

In simple terms. Imagine two friends playing a game of chess together.

Scenario A: Friend 1: “Let’s play chess.” Friend 2: “Ok. I like chess. I’ll be black.”

Scenario B: Friend 1: “Let’s play chess.” Friend 2: “No thanks. I don’t like chess.” Friend 1: “If you don’t play, I won’t be your friend.” Friend 2: “Fine. I’ll be black.”

Intrinsic motivation tends to be longer lasting and self-sustaining. If you enjoy solving puzzles you will tend to seek out more puzzles and get better at solving them. That will tend to make you enjoy it even more and seek out even more challenging puzzles.

You can probably see the power of intrinsic motivation when it comes to learning.

Extrinsic motivation tends to last a shorter time (usually as long as the reward or punishment exists) and isn’t self-sustaining. If I give you $5 to solve a puzzle. You solve it and collect the money. But when I run out of money you probably won’t solve any more puzzles.

The dangerous thing is that extrinsic motivation can steal from intrinsic motivation. Even if you enjoy solving puzzles, getting paid to solve them can de-motivate your sense of intrinsic reward. It can move you from solving puzzles because you enjoy it to only solving puzzles for the reward (or punishment).

So obviously we want more intrinsic motivation and less extrinsic motivation, right? Yes. But there is more.

Obviously there are things in life that you have to do even though you don’t really want to. Otherwise no one would ever wash the dishes, mow the lawn, or eat their vegetables. So how do we handle this?

If we build our learning around intrinsic motivation won’t everyone just “play games all day?”

  1. Humans learn through play. So let’s not be too quick to dismiss “play games all day.”
  2. The more you have developed habits of Self-Direction, Caring, Confidence, and Competence the more you will be able to “convert” what seem to be extrinsic motivations into intrinsic motivations.

Let me give you some examples.

There is a young girl who loves playing tennis matches but hates practicing tennis. Her dad requires her to practice one hour a day but she can’t wait for it to end. She starts losing matches because the other players seem to be getting better while she is staying the same. She watches the other players for awhile and realizes that they are practicing more than she is and that is probably why they are getting better.

She thinks about it and decides that she enjoyed playing more when she was as good (or better) than everyone else so she decides to practice as much as they do. She still doesn’t love to practice but she can see that it helps her reach her goal of being as good as the other players. In a fit of inspiration, she asks her dad to “require” two hours of practice a day until she catches up.

You can see that practice was not very intrinsically motivating to the young girl. But because she was self-reflective and self-directed, she saw the connection between an activity she didn’t love (practice) and an activity she did love (playing games).

Let’s go back to our friends playing chess. Imagine this new scenario.

Friend 1: “Let’s play chess.” Friend 2: “I don’t love chess, probably because I am not very good at it. I’ll tell you what, I’ll play… if you are willing to give me some pointers and help me get better. That way it will be fun for both of us.”

Friend 2 managed to convert what could have been an extrinsically motivated event into something else. It is no longer about chess. It is now about deepening a friendship.

We call that internalizing the extrinsic. Why do people wash the dishes?

  • Because it makes it easier to cook and eat
  • Because it makes their mom happy
  • Because they enjoy having a neat and clean kitchen
  • Because they can listen to music while they wash the dishes
  • Because they can veg out and not think about anything while they do wash
  • Because their older brother will help and they can hang out together

None of those reasons are really about washing the dishes. As you move towards being a self-directed learner who is caring, competent, and confident, it will become easier for you to do this type of conversion.

So, back to our original question, “Why might someone learn something?”

We believe there are five big reasons. They start with the most intrinsic and move towards the most extrinsic. But, as you can see, a self-directed learner can do some conversions and internalize, what on the surface seem like, extrinsic reasons.

Why learn something

  1. Curiosity and exploration: Sometimes you just want to know something. Sometimes you want to try out new things and explore new ideas. It is part of being human.
  2. Passion, fun, enjoyment, interest: It is a fun activity. I love this topic. I am really interested in learning more.
  3. Purpose and meaning: I want to make a difference in the world. I want to help people. I want to understand the problems of the world. I want to fix problems in the world.
  4. Short and long term goals: Doing this will help me reach my real goal.
  5. Requirements: If I don’t do this, something bad will happen. If I do this, I am going to get a reward.