How do you foster an intrinsic motivation to learn?

I recently got the results for my latest masters courses and I’m doing pretty well. But I don’t really care. I’ve never been particularly motivated by grades. As long as they are high enough that I can keep studying whatever I want.

The results came as I started reading A bigger prize by Margaret Heffernan. It’s a deep dive into competition. Specifically, the way we have unquestioningly inserted competition into so many aspects of life even as we keep discovering the benefits (to creativity, health, equality etc.) of cooperation.

In one early chapter Heffernan describes an experiment into kids’ motivation at school. And it really stopped me short. Wondering how I had lucked into an intrinsic motivation to learn, rather than needing to be baited with gold stars.

In the original experiment, a bunch of nursery school children were divided into three groups and given the opportunity to draw. The first group was promised a reward: if they drew, they’d win a certificate. The second group was told nothing – but was surprised by a certificate when it had finished drawing. The third group just drew and received nothing for its labours. Two weeks later, the children were again confronted by paper and pens. Now the question was: which group would want to draw? The group that had initially been promised a reward was the least engaged: why should they draw when there was no certificate on offer?
Similar experiments have been conducted with different ages, tasks and rewards, in different industries and countries around the world, but the results don’t vary. Grades, stars, certificates, money, trophies: ‘virtually every type of expected tangible reward made contingent on task performance does, in fact, undermine intrinsic motivation.’

This quickly feeds into rumination on divergent thinking, the problems with exams, and the link between education and creativity. But I’d like to stop here for now.

I need to look more into these studies. They seem directionally in line with what we see in society. Most people seem to stop learning when they finish school or university. Outside of that a lot is probably motivated by specific goals - qualifying for a job etc. But is this because we have subconsciously trained people to require short term positive reinforcement in order to learn?

Even the HBR-esque calls for lifelong learning are couched in these terms. I rarely ever see advocates for learning because learning itself is good. Education is expensive, fair enough. But its precisely the non-rewards-based education that is the cheapest. Wikipedia is almost free, for example.

Heffernan’s solution is to overhaul the structure of schools to remove aspects like testing, ranking and their links to teacher pay. Eliminate some of the competition, as is the main thrust of her book. But I’m not sure I completely buy it. I don’t know what the answer is.

My emphasis.

The context of colour

We’re surrounded by colour. On TV, advertising and clothes. I can whip open an app and conjure countless hues. We have wonderful algorithms that can interpolate from grainy, black and white footage.

But, reading Color by Victoria Finlay, gives you an appreciation of how unusual this is. How colour was rooted in place, politics, science, superstition, tradition, myth, adventure, disaster, exploitation, geology, biology and time.

And that isn’t an exhaustive list. As our use of colour has exploded, we’ve lost so much of this context.

With the exception of a few Russian icons which may have been painted with blue from Siberia, all the real ultramarine in both Western and Eastern art came from the last of these places—from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, collectively called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. It was where the Buddha’s topknots came from; it was where the monk painters of illuminated manuscripts found their skies; it was where the robe of Michelangelo’s Mother of God would have come from if he had waited long enough. And it was where I was determined to go.

Wars were fought over shades. Masterpieces left incomplete when artists couldn’t afford particular hues. Espionage was rampant as countries competed for monopolies.

This is a fascinating book, part travelogue part history. Finlay physically journeys to find ochre in Northern Australia, cochineal insect farms in South America, and the lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan.

But I was probably taken most with what’s lost. Many of the works lining our national galleries have changed since they were completed. Natural pigment often isn’t permanent. And nor are the techniques to make them.

I carry around a little box of watercolours nowadays. In case I can get in a quick sketch. But now I realise they’re more than burnt umbers or cerulean blue. It’s a box of stories.

Psyching out

“I can’t draw at all - I cant even draw stick men!” This is something I hear a lot. It’s always adults who say it - never children. Children haven’t yet learned to prejudge their drawing skills and so allow themselves to just give it a try.

This is from Sketching People. But it could easily have been in any of the drawing books I’ve read recently.

Our own minds are such a barrier to learning that every book is compelled to justify their very existence. To insist that drawing skills, like almost anything, aren’t an inherent trait. That they can be mastered with time, practice and study.

Of course some people are gifted. They pick up things quicker and achieve heights the rest of us seem incapable. But just because I may never eclipse Ray Allen’s free throw percentage (89%) doesn’t mean I can’t become insanely good. And even he had to earn the first 80, (85?) percent the same as the rest of us.

When do people learn to make perfection a barrier to even trying? And how do we unlearn that?

My emphasis

How many stories are we missing?

I recently stumbled across the sketch column of Gabriel Campanario in the Seattle Times. The archive goes back a decade and is full of lovely art. But he's also using the medium to tell stories, and capture emotion and feeling, in ways others can't.

The stillness in this recent column on Microsoft's campus during the pandemic, for instance:

Tucked away between buildings 31 and 32 in the northeast corner of the tech company’s sprawling campus, the lofty wooden huts served as meeting spaces and inspiration zones in precoronavirus times. For now, the treehouses stand empty, waiting for the eventual return of the employees who have been working from home for months.

I've never been to Seattle. I've seen it on tv and in movies, but these sketches and explorations ground it as more than a backdrop. Some of it is the focus on the mundane, like markets, bookstores and small parks.

Sketching and watercolour capture moments in time. But unlike photography they force the creator to be present for an extended period. To measure, estimate and contrast. To notice little details and features most of us walk past every day.

And, consequently, they force the viewer to do these things too.

Campanario has used this to document change, explore class and highlight microhistories throughout Seattle. The buildings, the infrastructure, are themselves the characters. Just as they are in our lives.

Pen and brush can explore lines, space, value and visual juxtaposition. They can exaggerate and simplify. In ways others just don't have to. In ways others can't. That is the strength of this column. But Campanario's work is also an example of what we've lost as media companies have shrunk, as stories have become faster, more national and international.

How many others are there with the license to slowly explore and document our built world? Our local world? How many stories are we missing?

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