Exterminate Intrinsic Motivation


Last week I attended a day of an exhibition at the Olympia in London. It was quite disorientating, skilfully avoiding being accosted by representatives at the stalls yet being attracted to the range of sweets (the jelly brains were a real winner), toys and other play things on offer. Oh the disappointment of waiting at the Adobe stall in all its sartorial glory, eagerly anticipating some free software, yet coming away with nothing. I felt cheated.

That aside, the best bits were the seminars. I had to listen quite hard though. The seminar ‘theatres’ were stretching the term normally used – they were just areas with rows of seating – the rest of the business going on regardless around it. One seminar I enjoyed most was given by a lively chap who obviously had a thing for dinosaurs. But I like that, so it went well with him. It was taking lessons from gaming and applying them to learning. He focused on the concept of intrinsic motivation. The motivation to learn coming from within. Of course, I know this is a gross simplification – you could argue that motivators don’t neatly divide into just intrinsic or extrinsic. We are more complicated than that – there’s a sliding continuum and interplay between motivators. But, since he was offering chocolate coated dinosaur biscuits, I was prepared to listen.

What was interesting was that the predominant theory on this – “self-determination” suggests that intrinsic motivation can lead to more effective learning than the extrinsic ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Sounds obvious but easier said than done. This apparently needs three things (why are there always 3 or 5?, I’m sure it’s a prime thing): autonomy (i.e. some degree of control, choice); challenge (so you want to get better and master something); and relatedness (some sense of purpose and recognition). It probably also needs money and good looks too. That’s where gaming comes in.

I was reminded how easily people get hooked on computer games (Portal (it’s a physics thing), Team Fortress 2 and Tactical Assassin are our current house favourites– frustrating, challenging but satisfying once you master them). They give you choices (weaponry, direction, scene, character), challenge (skill level gets better with practice and allows you to progress through levels) and recognition from your peers (your high score in lights and recognition of your expert level within the on-line gaming community).

So, the implication was that if you designed learning more like the way games are organised, students would take to it more naturally. The key to this is the way it is packaged – chunks of learning which provide some challenge (so not easy but also not too difficult), are progressive (no access to higher levels until the lower levels are mastered and tested at ’gateways’) and provide some recognition for your contribution (not only getting right answers but contributing to discussion forums). The recognition can come in the form of ‘experience points’ or ratings from your peers. It’s an interesting idea and I at least see some of the more obvious bits in normal life. I’ll illustrate from my own life.

I’ve recently ventured into robotics. The sort where you have to buy bits from electronic components suppliers, build the chassis from bits around the house (a good deal of choice), build the circuit, programme the integrated circuit ‘chip’ and observe the destruction it reaps on your life and family when it all goes horribly wrong. I followed a basic plan from the Society of Robots – we all have to start somewhere. I have discovered that fat fingers and soldering do not make happy bed fellows. I have also learned that spending less than £10 on a soldering iron leads to pain and suffering (of which Yoda knows full well). But, as challenging as it was, I was extremely motivated to complete it (I admit I had the misplaced confidence of a young son not to disappoint too) and actively sought solutions to problems I encountered (rather a lot of it I had to work out for myself)).

Through the struggle of doing it (though not quite as extreme as some Dickensian workhouse triumph over adversity), you learn a great deal more. Some of my solutions weren’t orthodox (the use of brute force means you can force more things into holes in a perf board than is considered strictly necessary or elegant, but it worked nonetheless – my motivation being to avoid the more advanced soldering as much as I dare).

My photovore (light-seeking) robot achieved self-awareness at exactly 07:14 (Terminator will never seem the same again). I have it on film. Have I enjoyed making it? Yes and its given me an appetite to explore more complex systems, utilising more advanced commercial microcontrollers (that takes the hard work out of soldering, but still leaves the joy of programming). There’s a whole world of Geeks out there and quaint-sounding microcontrollers like the Arduino (yes, it’s Italian and, unlike a Ferrari, is less than £20).

But, I am mindful that the challenge has to be realistic and achievable. If it is not, it is immensely demotivating and the temptation to give up is too great. So, some interesting reminders. Don’t be frightened of stretching or being stretched. Mr fantastic (the first of four) took it all in his stride. But, it must suit the “stretchee”.