Why our Education System is Broken explained by Intrinsic/Extrinsic Motivation Design

Intrinsic Extrinsic Motivation Education

Intrinsic/Extrinsic Design explains why our Education System is Broken

(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

The negative shift from Intrinsic Motivation to Extrinsic Motivation is a big issue within our educational systems.

I hold a firm belief that we as a species are endowed with an innate desire to learn, often driven by Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity – a Right Brain Core Drive, and Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback – the Right Brain desire to use that knowledge in different ways. However, when it comes to school and training, that intrinsic motivation to learn quickly shifts into the extrinsic desire to obtain good grades, appease parents and teachers, gain respect from classmates, and secure prestigious, career-requisite diplomas. All of which are powered by Left Brain Core Drives such as Core Drive 2 and 4.)

Because of this, students often stop caring about the learning itself and do the minimum amount of work to achieve those extrinsic results (which sometimes involves copying each others’ home work or cheating on tests). They may even forget why they are learning the material in the first place.

In early 2014, I had a research interview with a high school senior student on a variety of games. He was an overachieving student who was finishing high school two years earlier than his peers. He knew just about everything there was to know concerning the elite universities he was applying to. Over the course of our conversation, he stated (paraphrasing of course), “Well, Stanford is great at these things, but I’m not sure about this. Harvard is okay on this subject matter, but they have an amazing program that could help my future.”

Then, somewhere in the conversation, I mentioned that math is a very useful subject to prepare for one’s career. To my surprise, this teenager who was polite and enthusiastic the entire time suddenly responded in an almost disdainful way:

“Come on Yu-kai. When do people ever use advanced math after graduating from school?”

I felt I had to justify myself: “I’m serious. Math is really useful. If you want to be a scientist, you need to use a lot of advanced math.”

His eyes widened up. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course. You need math to calculate sound waves, gravity, satellite positioning information and such. Also, you need math if you want to become an engineer, economist, or even an accountant. How else would you tell the President that the economy would dry up if he doesn’t bail out certain banks for nine billion dollars, or calculate how many days it takes for an asteroid the size of Texas to hit earth?” I said.

He exclaimed, “Wow, I never thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense!”

So here is a teenager who is doing everything he is supposed to do – get good grades, get good SAT scores, participate in extracurricular activities, write strong essays on his college applications, and research the schools he wants to attend. And yet, he does not know why he is studying math beyond the goals of getting into a good college and perhaps securing a good job.

It was eye-opening for me to see how bad the impact of goal-oriented education was on our learning. I can say this from my own experience: many students who neglect school and get in trouble all the time, aren’t like that because they are stupid or dislike learning. They just don’t see the purpose of learning the subjects that are taught in class.

All too often, this tendency is present at the college level. I do a fair amount of work with universities to improve their educational methodologies. I often ask professors about the students that attend their office hours. If humans were so passionate about learning, you would expect that these students should be thrilled that there’s a professor who is brilliant, has spent decades researching a subject, and is dedicating their time just to transfer that knowledge!

With this in mind, every student should be excited about the opportunity to visit every single office hour and pick the professors’ brains. For some reason, I’ve always felt this phrase to be rather gory in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way).

As it turns out, the majority of their students that actually show up are only there when they have problems with their grades. Either they are approaching the professor because they are about to fail the course, or because they feel the professor incorrectly graded their tests and want to get their points back.

As a result of this extrinsic focus, students often forget what they learned immediately after their exams.

When I was a student, I once told a few friends, “Did you know that, since most people forget 80% of what they have learned after the test, if you simply remember 80% instead of forget 80%, you are immediately four times better than everyone else? That’s not just a 20% or 30% improvement. It’s a 400% improvement! What else can you do to quickly become four times better than others in the same major?”

To my surprise, my friends responded, “Wow, that’s true Yu-kai! But… what’s the point? We’ve already finished the test.” At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond to a statement like that, but I’m guessing the most appropriate response would have been, “You’re wrong. You still have to remember it for the Final Exam!”

You can see that Extrinsic Motivation design and goals has clearly taken its toll on our desire to learn and curiously explore subject matters that benefit our society.

7 thoughts on “Why our Education System is Broken explained by Intrinsic/Extrinsic Motivation Design”

  1. I’m teaching at the Polytechnic level – and it is a challenge. I’ve been trying to learn enough to implement simple gamification system for them, but right now I’m largely focusing on providing them the info to understand their own motivations, why they make certain decisions and actions. I’m getting a better picture as I learn more about Octalysis … wish me luck!!!

  2. That is no new to me, but motivation in school depends also on the system is used and who applies it to its students.
    The said “There are not bad students, only bad teachers” is IMHO a true story.
    Teachers fail in motivating their students and students don’t think all in the same way.
    People are no only driven by motivation but also unlocked with their own specific key.
    Find the key and that mind will be the most responsive one a student have ever had.
    I always though school system rewards only people who understand it and like it, you don’t even have to be smart to get good grades, just learning the rules and go with them.

    1. I recently did a presentation on Gamification/GBL for an ed conference in which I mentioned your work (I really like your book). However, when you are dealing with K-8, I don’t see the issue of using extrinsic to create intrinsic. I would find it difficult to solely jump to intrinsic with this population. The goal is for students to understand and for teachers to engage in this conversation as well with their students so by the time they are at high school/college, they hopefully do have stronger intrinsic motivators. With regard to the story of the student that did not understand the point of why he was being taught something, I place that on poor teaching/lack of making those connections with their class.

    2. It’s so hard for individual educators because they have to follow the organisational policy. But within that boundary, to then find ways to stimulate, inspire and bring students curiosity alive.

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