Voluntaryist Schooling at Libertopia 2011 - Part 2: Why Intrinsic Motivation Works

Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow

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At Libertopia 2011, visitors will have a chance to find out why a group of voluntaryists in San Diego are starting their own school. More specifically, from October 20th through 23rd, the folks from Summum Bonum Learning Center will demonstrate how a school based on intrinsic motivation and freedom can respond to the needs of the children in ways that put other types of schools to shame – especially the “public” prison-schools run by local governments. So reserve your room and get the special rate available at Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn and Suites. Then you can become part of the weekend’s busy schedule of events – including the presentation by Joey Hill at 9:00 on Saturday, October 22nd in the John Galt Room. Be there or be statist!
And now for the learning theory behind the Summum Bonum Learning Center…
Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in an activity for its own sake. More particularly, this desire comes from inside an individual. Because it adheres to intrinsic motivation as the basis for developing a healthy learning experience, the Summum Bonum Learning Center avoids using punishments, payments, grades, and rewards – all of which are examples of extrinsic motivation and control. The use of extrinsic motivation can be traced to B.F. Skinner’s theory of behaviorism (although behaviorists prefer rewards to punishments). Behaviorism posits that everything an individual does (act, thought, and feeling) is a form of behavior. Consequently, it denies the existence of psychological constructs such as the self, mind, or will. Furthermore, the theory of behaviorism posits that human behavior can be shaped and controlled (or “conditioned”) by the application of external reinforcements that induce a person to respond in specific ways. Educational theories based on behaviorism rely on extrinsic motivators to shape a child’s learning experience and psychological development.
Regardless of the status of psychological constructs such as the mind or self, SBLC rejects rewards and punishments as the basis for shaping a child’s learning experience. Extensive research, compiled by Alfie Kohn in his book Punished by Rewards, shows that extrinsic motivators such as rewards and punishments are ineffective. They appear to “work” for simple, quantifiable tasks, but their impact diminishes with time. Just as important, they are ineffective for tasks involving quality, creativity, risk taking, and long-term commitment. In addition, they tend to shift a child’s reasons for doing things from the task itself to an emphasis on getting the reward. Because they are a rather crude attempt to control a child, they fail to address why children learn. At the same time, they actually de-value learning because they are viewed as bribes to engage in something disagreeable. In the eyes of perceptive children, they are seen as phony ploys, and that perception fosters a feeling of being controlled, which is linked to long-term aggression and resentment.
Extrinsic motivators also have disturbing ethical implications that compromise learning and long-term development – implications that voluntaryists instinctively understand. In a sense, extrinsic motivators reduce human beings to passive machines – things to be switched on and off, slowed down, and speeded up at the whim of some controller. Not surprising, these extrinsic motivators raise the status of the reward-giver above the recipient, creating a controller-controlled relationship – the source of status-based relationships and their widespread acceptance as “normal.” Furthermore, by shifting the attention of the learner from the task to obtaining a reward, they reduce the learner’s level of personal engagement in a task, causing learners to make only the minimum effort needed to obtain the reward. Not surprisingly, they discourage students, instill a fear of failure, create anxiety; and suppress the spirit of cooperation by pitting learners against each other. Is it any wonder that public schools and many private schools are such abysmal failures?
In contrast, intrinsic motivation and the practice of motivational interviewing accustom children to thinking about themselves and their goals without being forced into any mold by a politician or curriculum developer. Intrinsic motivation and motivational interviewing also bring learners into the learning process by offering choices and enabling them to enlarge the scope of their choices. They also support a habit of providing detailed feedback to students and parents while identifying why children learn. With these practices in place, children experience learning as a process of discovery, making mistakes, and accepting challenges – the opposite of “playing it safe” to obtain a good grade or some other reward. A school based on intrinsic motivation engages children in the problem-solving process through both choice of content and collaboration. The children learn to value explanations as a means of understanding, not simply reciting information because they were told to do so.
Just as important, by making use of nonviolent communication (taught by Marshall Rosenberg), the Summum Bonum Learning Center fosters the development of empathy by providing an environment where it is demonstrated by adults and is acted out by children with each other on a regular basis. Most obviously, this will take place as children tutor one another. With no grading curve to shame or uplift the students based on their performance, they will no longer be pitted against each other. Instead, they will be able and willing to help one another to learn. At its heart, this type of environment values the perspective of the learner. Further, both the Summerhill and Sudbury alumni have already demonstrated their resultant emotional well being – evidenced by changes in the behavior of even “disturbed” students as they slowly adjusted to the new, healthier environment of these schools. Moreover, both of these schools demonstrated the “fitness for study” of their graduates; they were usually accepted at the universities of their first choice when they chose to attend these institutions.
One of the most significant effects of the Summum Bonum Learning Center will be played out within the families of the learners. The family is the first social “association” with which a child comes into contact. Furthermore, during the first four years of life, 90% of the brain and its functions are formed (www.acestudy.org). Consequently, since parents are deeply involved in the training for both nonviolent communication and intrinsic motivation at SBLC, the Summum Bonum Learning Center will be helping to reform relationships within the family itself. This will promote healthier interpersonal relationships in the process – the kind that are antithetical to the state. By reforming the two most influential associations in a child’s life (the family and school), SBLC is striking the root in a profound way.
In the third and final essay in this series, we will address why it is so important to create these schools now. Hint: demographics and the bankruptcy of the state at every level will require parents to seek alternatives that work instead of today’s disruptive tax-based institutions as funding evaporates in the fiscal meltdown of the state. The insights of Butler Shaffer, laid out in his book Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, loom large. That’s why Libertopia is such a timely event.
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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.