Intrinsic Motivation & the Traditionally-Educated Child

Feb 27, 2019 | For Parents, Second Plane | 0 comments

Children are born motivated to learn. Think about how much a newborn changes and learns in their first year of life. No one grades them on how quickly they learn to roll over. They don't get gold stars for learning how to pull themselves upright, or use early language, or make eye contact with the people they love. Indeed, even if you wanted to (and why would you want to?) you can't stop an infant from learning. Their motivation comes naturally, without grades or rewards. That intrinsic enthusiasm persists for most children, and the design of the Montessori classroom makes use of it in our expectation that children will thrive without grades, work plans or teacher-prescribed lists of "have-tos."

But, as much as we want to take advantage of the intrinsic motivation that supports children's engagement and curiosity, we know that, the older children grow, the more complicated that motivation becomes. For some children, they are "taught out" of motivation. Traditional classrooms, with a heavy emphasis on right answers, grades and teacher praise, can squelch children's internal drive and replace it with an emphasis on external praise and reward. For children in environments that "reward" their good work with teacher praise or public acclaim, with bonuses and gold stars, that natural curiosity can be replaced with a focus on the external reward. Over time, the child becomes increasingly dependent on the rewards to motivate their work, and requires increasingly ambitious rewards as they acclimate to each new level of praise.

Many Montessori schools will maintain admissions policies that acknowledge the challenges to persistent motivation for children who have been in traditional classrooms for a while. They may only admit children into their youngest classrooms, or they may require previous Montessori experiences for children transferring to their Elementary or Middle School programs. While this may be a practical necessity to make sure that teachers' attention isn't taken up with one or two children who need external reinforcement to stay on task, in the long run, it excludes children from the benefits of Montessori. That is to say, it closes off the possibility that, with the right environment, even a child who has been "trained out" of their intrinsic motivation can develop it again.

Instead, we might adjust our expectations. A child coming to Montessori at ten or eleven years old, after they have been indoctrinated to a system of learning that depends on adults to determine their schedule, their focus and their content, will struggle with the open-ended, self-directed nature of the Montessori classroom. A child has been discouraged long enough from listening to their own instincts about their learning will learn to quiet that internal voice and rely, instead, on their teacher to tell them what to do from moment to moment. But just as we can teach children out of their natural tendencies, we can help them to discover them again if we're willing to offer enough time. Children who have lost touch with their intrinsic motivation may initially be overwhelmed by the freedoms of the Montessori classroom. They may take advantage of those freedoms, just like children who are never allowed to have sweet treats may guzzle them down when they're someplace without those limits. Instead of throwing out the potential baby with the teacher-dependent bathwater, we might think differently about how to provide the space for children to reconnect with their natural curiosity. That a child has had their curiosity quieted does not mean that curiosity is dead. Instead, it raises the expectation of advocacy for us, as teachers and parents, to help the child return to their normalized self.

1. Create structures for children who have been taught out of their intrinsic motivation to transition back to a child-directed model. A child coming to Montessori in later Elementary, for example, may initially need a teacher-designed work plan to follow as they learn the materials and adopt the rhythms of the classroom. That teacher-designed model may evolve to one which is defined with the input of the teacher and the child. That collaborative model may, then, evolve to one which is defined by the child but checked by the teacher. That child-designed model may, then, become one which is only documented by the child, with a teacher observing the child's work in the same way they would observe the experiences of a child who has always been in a Montessori classroom. Ultimately, the child will not need the detailed work plan at all, and should be able to.

2. Allow ample time for that new learning to happen. Remember, while the transitioning child may be learning how to follow their own lead in the classroom, they'll need lots of practice that affirms those instincts. We should expect, at first, that they'll need support, just as we expect that any new habit requires reinforcement to become internalized. But with time, children can learn to take ownership of their learning again, even when they've been trained to rely on adults. This transition may not happen quickly. It may include some backsliding. Indeed, it may be a full school year before a child comes to trust that they will, really, truly, every day, be supported in following their own curiosity and demonstrating agency over their own learning.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Be realistic with parents of older children new to Montessori about the ways in which transitioning to these environments after years in a traditional setting will be different. Those peaceful, focused, self-directed children they see in their school tours may not reflect what their child's experience may be the first year. Craft your plan for a long transition with parent involvement and input. Then, remember to communicate with the child as they learn to learn in these classrooms. Children who are old enough to have lost touch with their intrinsic motivation are also old enough to be able to contribute to a plan to gain it back. A "lesson" for a transitioning older child may be "how to build a work plan," or "how to talk with an adult about your academic progress." Be candid about the expectations within a Montessori environment, ("This is a place where children can follow their own interests and learn at their own pace.") and candid about the ways in which it may take time to re-establish that ("In your old classroom, you may have waited for a teacher to tell you when it was time to do Math. Here, we're going to practice choosing math independently. I can see that you've stayed with the work plan I've designed for you for three weeks now. Do you think you're ready to start helping me to decide what to put on your plan each day?")

While it will take time, trust, and patience for a child to re-learn their own nature, the reward is far greater than any gold star or All-A report card could offer. We don't stop believing in children just because they didn't have the benefit of Montessori education in early childhood. Indeed, our influence as Montessorians could be far greater if we advocated as passionately for older learners returning to their natural patterns than if we limited our attention only to the ones we work with "from the start." A child who has been in Montessori since early childhood may find their great work in understanding the universe in elementary. A child who has only come to Montessori in elementary may find their great work in understanding themselves. Both children matter and, with enough creativity, patience and compassion, we can serve them both.

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