INTRINSIC MOTIVATION FOR YOUNG LEARNERS
By Ben Sugiyama
Let’s talk about motivation. There are 2 main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation is a person performing a task or action to satisfy their own internal
I taught myself to play the guitar when I was 15 years old because I wanted to be Billie Joe
from Green Day. I practiced for hours and hours, every day, for no one other than myself.
That’s pure intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is a person performing a task or action to satisfy the desires of others.
Working for a salary. Obeying the law. Studying for a high school test. Cleaning your room
in return for a bowl of ice cream. These are all examples of extrinsic motivation.
Both types of motivation have their place in our daily lives.
Classrooms by their very nature tend to sit in the extrinsic motivation camp. The students
learn because the teacher teaches. If the teacher didn’t kick the students up the backside
then they wouldn’t learn anything. Recently however, more and more teachers are starting
to take a student centered approach.
I believe the book is out of print at the moment, but I strongly suggest trying to acquire a
copy of David Paul’s Teaching English to Children in Asia. If you haven’t read it, It’s full of
the theory and more importantly, the practical advice needed to set up a student-centered
Rewards and punishments
Research shows that rewards and punishments are not good reasons for performing a
task. We can get people to do what we want by giving punishments for non-compliance or
offering rewards for compliance, but the motivation and effort of the person performing the
action will be much lower.
When offered a reward, people will focus on attaining the reward.
We’ll put just enough effort into the task to get the reward, and on a sub conscious level
we’ll be wary of expending more energy than we need to. When there is a fixed, standard
reward for performing tasks then we will, over time, figure out where the sweet spot is of
getting the reward hassle free, whilst putting in the least amount of effort possible. Think
about being good enough at your job to please your boss, not make any waves, receive
your regular, monthly salary and get out of there at 5 on the dot on a Friday night to enjoy
Children in our classrooms are going through the same mental motions to get through
English class, get the high-5, get the gold star, get to the end of class game and then to
“clock out”, go home and forget about it.
Similarly, when we fear a looming punishment, we focus our attention on ways to avoid the
punishment. When I drove to work this morning, I wasn’t trying my absolute best to be the
most careful driver I could possibly be. That would take way more effort than I wanted to
expend at 7 O’clock in the morning. No, I simply drove carefully enough to avoid accidents
and speeding tickets.
In a classroom where a child is told “Stop it, or I’ll call your mum”, “Sit down or there’s no
game”, if the child decides to comply then they’ll do enough to get by, enough to avoid the
punishments and that’s it.
In both scenarios, the reward scenario and the punishment scenario the task being
performed is not where our attention is focused. This leads to a poorer quality of results.
Interestingly, research also shows that when people are rewarded after the completion of a
task, their motivation to perform the task again in the future actually decreases. This is
because we have taken something that was produced intrinsically and stuck an extrinsic
reward on the end. The next time the person comes to perform the task, all they’ll be
thinking about is that sweet reward they got last time.
The advice for parents when presented with something their child has produced is to talk
about what they like about it and to ask questions. Get the child to say what they like or
don’t like about it. The focus of the conversation, all the energy is directed at the thing itself,
the artwork, the essay, the song or whatever it may be.
In part 2 of this blog, I will discuss how we get young learners into a state of being
intrinsically motivated to study English.