Children Are Not Pigeons!

(Updated, 2016, Education Follies post)

As the title suggests, I am a font of profundity, aren’t I?

I suspect most Boomer educators have retired by the time of this writing, but when we were engaged en masse with the Nation’s charge to educate our children—and in opposition to the obvious claim of this post’s title—many of us had been programmed to treat children like B. F. Skinner’s pigeons. Granted, a teacher can influence a child to do something if a reward is sufficiently valued by the child, or if a punishment is severe enough, but what happens when the consequence of a behavior is no longer provided or its tangible memory is diminished by time?

In What happens to four-year-olds? the case is made that American educators have too little of an understanding of the workings of intrinsic motivation as compared to their assumptions regarding Skinner’s reliance upon extrinsic motivation. (The term extrinsic means something apart from the essential nature of someone, something that comes from outside a person. Intrinsic means something that is essential to who a person is, something natural that is a part of us.) Further, the post introduced the findings of research by Edward L. Deci et al as explained in Why We Do What We Do, findings which have coalesced into Self-determination Theory (SDT), which is supported by copious research. In Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, there is a paragraph that describes humans’ intrinsic motivation to learn, a motivation I have suggested that reflects a four-year-old’s approach to life and learning:

In humans, intrinsic motivation is not the only form of motivation, or even of volitional activity, but it is a pervasive and important one. From birth onward, humans, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful creatures, displaying a ubiquitous readiness to learn and explore, and they do not require extraneous incentives to do so. This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development because it is through acting on one’s inherent interests that one grows in knowledge and skills. The inclinations to take interest in novelty, to actively assimilate, and to creatively apply our skills is not limited to childhood, but is a significant feature of human nature that affects performance, persistence, and well-being across life’s epochs..

Unfortunately, SDT research has shown that extrinsic motivators can diminish the power of intrinsic motivators, which explains why by fifth grade, American educators (and parents) have gold-starred, stickered, candy-barred, atta-boyed, and student-of-the-monthed a child’s natural intrinsic motivation to learn right out of our children, especially those students who are sometimes described as high-fliers; a title that in my mind creates an unfortunate connection with pigeons!

Instead of using extrinsic rewards that may have a deleterious impact upon our children’s intrinsic motivation to learn, Ryan and Deci suggest: …in schools, the facilitation of more self-determined learning requires classroom conditions that allow satisfaction of these three basic human needs—that is (the need) to feel connected, effective, and agentic as one is exposed to new ideas and exercises new skills.”

Elsewhere in the paper, the authors refer to these three innate human needs as the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Given the barrage of ideas that are thrown at educators (by educators!) during the course of a year, some years ago I gave a little thought as to how I might help adults retrieve these three foundational needs.

I considered acrostics (a sentence made up of words that begin with the first letters of the words you want to remember) as a way to remember autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and I came up with a few. I considered All Children Run, which was a little too banal. I also considered Angry Canadians Rage, but Americans know that Canadians never get angry, so that would not have worked.

Ultimately, I opted to substitute “control” for autonomy and “connected” for relatedness because I thought the substituted words might have a more immediate hook for the educators I was training, AND it allowed me to encode control, competence, and connected as The Three C’s. (Ryan and Deci actually use the terms competence and connected in the paper cited above, so using those terms was not a stretch on my part!)

Presented to professional development participants, The Three C’s proved to be a helpful way to remember the three innate wants that each of us needs to employ if we wish to create a culture and climate in schools that allows students and colleagues to motivate themselves:

Control—each of us has the need to feel as though we have some degree of control in our lives

Competence—each of us has the need to feel capable, knowledgeable, and proficient

Connection—each of us needs to feel connected with others in an emotionally meaningful way

Remembering three words is not the same as understanding the concepts, so if what I am sharing is beginning to resonate with you, it will be helpful for you to recall past and present activities in which you engage because you really want to do so, as opposed to those activities in which you engage “because I have to.” As you consider those activities that you do because you want to, select those things that are free of obvious extrinsic rewards—like the thrills attendant upon riding rollercoasters—and think about those that involve appreciable effort. And then consider the degree to which the energy and enthusiasm you apply to that activity is related to the Three C’s.

If you find that a favorite activity provides a noticeable degree of personal control in what you are doing, provides a sense of satisfaction with your own proficiency, and in some way provides a positive emotional link with others, you will begin to appreciate the influence of intrinsic motivation on your life. And if you do, and if you are a parent of young children or if you are a school teacher—for the benefit of the kids you encounter every day—it is my wish as a retired, Boomer educator who is riding off into the sunset, that you will learn more about SDT and apply what it teaches regarding how to create homes and classrooms that will nurture our kids’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

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