Tag Archives: Motivation

The transformation of learning into education

The transformation of learning into education paralyses man’s poetic ability, his power to endow the world with his personal meaning. Man will wither away just as much if he is deprived of nature, of his own work, or of his deep need to learn what he wants and not what others have planned that he should learn. (“Tools for conviviality”, Ivan Illich)

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Threats to my intrinsic motivation

Well that’s a bummer. Apparently last Friday I didn’t write my 750 words, falling short by only 20 words. I think there must have been a bug in the system, because I distinctly remember seeing the little green popup saying something, although I’m not 100% sure that something was the congratulations for having reached the limit.

So now I’ve failed the May challenge, with only 3 days to go, and I’ve broken my 35 day streak. Initially I was pretty upset about this, and feeling a bit demoralised. I seriously considered stopping this daily writing so I can have more time to spend on other things.

However, I realise that I had already broken the challenge before on those days when I just copy-pasted earlier blog posts instead of writing original stuff. That was really silly. Why am I doing this 750 words thing? To get the longest running streak? To get badges? To feel good about myself and boast to others about how well I’m doing? As much as it makes me feel ashamed, it seems that these are indeed some of the reasons I’ve been doing it.

However, there are other reasons too that are still valid:

  • Writing each day helps me to reflect on what I’ve done and learned during the day.
  • It helps me to see some of the lessons of the day that I might miss if I don’t take the time to write.
  • It helps me to keep the habit of writing, converting the content of my thoughts into electronic, written form, which will be a great help when I get stuck into my PhD.
  • Finally, I simply enjoy writing.

There are many benefits to this writing habit, and I value all of them enough to continue writing even though I didn’t complete the challenge this month, and broke my streak.

Thinking more about it now, I have decided that, on days when it’s really not convenient or even possible to write 750 meaningful words, I’ll just skip it. It’s important and useful, but it’s not a priority that overrides all others. I don’t want to care about having a long running streak, and I don’t want to care about earning any rewards other than those that are intrinsic in the process of writing. I enjoy writing, so why do I need any other incentives?

In fact, if I feel that my entry was meaningful and helpful enough, I won’t even worry about reaching the 750 word limit. I understand that this limit is set because, on average, it tends to take deeper thought and soul-searching to come up with that many words, but sometimes I get to that level before this limit. For example, today’s entry has already helped me to reflect on my daily writing, and to decide that I should continue with it, but not be as inflexible as I have been in the past. Knowing what I know about intrinsic motivation should have informed me about this detrimental effect of extrinsic rewards.

What am I talking about? Interestingly, over and over again the lessons of life take me back to what I’ve learned about self-determination and the quality of motivation. When you really enjoy doing something for its own sake, you tend to be naturally motivated to do that thing, you don’t need external rewards or even personal challenges. However, if you get the promise of external rewards or set yourself a challenge for that particular activity (e.g. writing, painting etc.), it tends to undermine this intrinsic motivation, and you are more likely to discontinue this activity, whether or not you get the reward or achieve your challenge. Unfortunately our society is very focused on extrinsic rewards, competition and measurable achievements, so our natural inclinations towards certain activities tends to be stifled.

I have felt this many times, particularly in regards to music. I first got interested in playing the piano when my parents bought us a cheap Pink Panther piano-accordion toy. They noticed that I used to play some recognisable tunes on the keyboard, so they talked and talked and eventually decided to buy an upright, acoustic piano and get me signed up for one-on-one home lessons when I was 8. That purchase represented a very large expense for them, and was a great sacrifice, something I didn’t understand until a few years ago when I temporarily re-acquired this piano and found the invoice for its purchase inside its cover.

Piano Hand

The piano, extension of my soul...

Now, my parents had noticed an intrinsic motivation in me towards playing the piano, and they built upon that by buying one for me. That was an excellent move on their part. Having one-on-one lessons was also fantastic. However, I wasn’t always very motivated to perform the exercises given by the teacher, because I didn’t have a lot of choice in what these exercises were (lack of autonomy thwarts intrinsic motivation). I was very confident in my own abilities though (high competence promotes intrinsic motivation) and I got along well with the teacher (high relatedness promotes intrinsic motivation). So, for the first few years of learning the piano, I did really well and motivation wasn’t an issue.

Later on, however, we moved to a larger town and I joined a music school. My interests for the piano wavered for a while, and my parents got worried that I would stop practicing and waste my talent (as well as the piano!). To help me get back to it, they started nagging me to do my exercises, reminding me how much money they had spent on the piano, and how I was wasting my talent etc. I don’t remember if they set up any reward system, but I certainly remember the negative reinforcement of the nagging. This really didn’t help my intrinsic motivation, but occasionally I found myself attracted to the ivories and playing for the pleasure of it.

Today I have no reward system surrounding playing the piano, no outward pressures to perform, and I absolutely relish any and all opportunities I have to play. I love taking very challenging pieces of music and slowly, painstakingly playing through them, enjoying the beautiful chords and melodies (particularly Rachmaninov and Chopin). The fact that I don’t even have a keyboard at home (something I tend to remedy soon, hopefully!) makes these opportunities even more rare and enjoyable. I often play just for the pure enjoyment of it, and I don’t care whether or not I sound clumsy and out of rhythm.

I tend to be like this with my writing, singing, baking, painting and photography, and I’d like to be more intrinsically motivated to study, and even to work. My intrinsic motivation to do these two things is, of course, threatened by the external reward systems inherent in them (grades and accolades for studies, money and recognition for work). If only I could care less about external rewards!


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Publishing a research article

Today I met with Ken Robinson, my honours thesis supervisor in 2010 and a good friend since 2006. He’s a senior lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University, and has agreed to be an assistant supervisor for my PhD project. We spent most of today in his office at the Joondalup campus of ECU, preparing my honours’ research report for publication in the scientific journal “Motivation and Emotion“. This is the first time I’ve ever prepared a manuscript for publication, and I’ve never read nor heard anyone’s first-hand experience of this process before, so I thought it’d be worth a blog entry.

First of all, what is this publishing thing all about? Why would you ever want, after a whole year of gruelling, hard work to get a degree, to go back to your research and spend unpaid, precious time preparing it for publication? What’s in it for you? The fact is that most honours students never publish their research, even though it is often of extremely good quality. So, why should they bother, and, really, should they bother at all?

The first answer that might come to mind is money. However, this would only come to mind if you’re mostly unacquainted with scientific research, particularly in the field of psychology. No, you don’t get any money from publishing, in fact it’s more likely you’ll have to pay in some cases (for example, if you have colourful illustrations in your article). You’ll also have to spend hours of unpaid work to prepare your manuscript, hours that might be put to relatively more productive use. So, what other incentive could there be to publish your research?

Fame! Prestige! Worldwide acclaim and celebrity status! Perhaps an appearance on Today Tonight! You got it, that’s definitely why I’ve decided to publish my research. With several thousands of readers each month, and an average of 1.3 citations per article over the past 2 years, the journal of Motivation and Emotion is the ideal place to catch the attention of the big wigs in the world of psychology, and to start building an internationally renowned career, getting flown all over the globe to various symposia and conferences for notoriously anticipated keynote addresses.


Zombie Marie Curie

You got it, I was being sarcastic, but only facetiously. Here are the real advantages of publishing my research, for my point of view:

  1. I actually think my research is useful and can make a positive difference in the world. Yes, I know that’s rare, but in my case I actually chose the topic and I’m rather passionate about it. If I don’t publish it, it’s pretty much wasted on anyone else but me (it has given me access to a doctorate/master programme after all).
  2. I am really interested in research, and part of a research career is a research portfolio. It’s part of my CV, and will help me in the future to obtain grants for other research projects. Good research probably doesn’t need grants. Earth-moving, paradigm-shifting research definitely does.
  3. It’s a great way to learn the ropes of scientific publication. If I do end up in a research career, anything I learn now about this process will be extremely valuable for future attempts at publication.

There, I think I summed it up pretty well. The most important point is certainly the first one. I didn’t do my honours research just for the sake of graduating and getting into a Masters/PhD programme. I actually wanted to learn, test some hypotheses, and report on what I found. I’m still interested in the subject. In fact, even months after submitting my thesis, I was still running analyses, researching the literature, and communicating with the Self-Determination Theory community. I care about this topic, I think it has profound implications for psychology as a field, as well as for education.

Now, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am at least slightly attracted by the prospect of getting some recognition for my research. I do enjoy the occasional pat on the back, and I like to know that what I do is appreciated by others. However, I try very hard not to focus on this attraction, because I feel it tends to distract me from the real benefits of what I’m doing, which benefits are hopefully less about me and more about other people. That includes my family. I am committed to my family, and I’m determined that my career will never override my family’s needs. That is part of my mission plan in life.


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Experiencing flow: Challenge and Skill

Well, this week is certainly hectic, and it’s only Tuesday! I have 2 assignments to complete before the week is over (one just finished tonight, yeah!), 4 hours of tutoring (one in French, 3 in statistics), 2 hours of badminton, 3 home teaching visits, a missionary coordination meeting, 4 lectures at Curtin University, and a 20-minute talk to prepare for Sunday! ARGH! What have I got myself into? Interestingly enough, it’s when I’m under pressure like this that I seem to perform the best. It reminds me of the theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi (see his TED lecture on creativity).

Flow Diagram

Flow occurs when both challenge and skill are high

Basically this theory says that people’s performance and motivation depends on the interaction of two dimensions: the difficulty of the task (challenge), and the level of competence or skill one has to complete the task. When these are in the right combination (high challenge + high skill), one can experience a state of “flow”, in which we are completely immersed in what we are doing. Time seems to fly by very quickly, and we are driven to keep going just because we love what we’re doing. This is very similar to the idea of intrinsic motivation in Self-Determination Theory.

When I was working on my honours thesis last year, the first half of the year went really slow. I had to wait for approval of my proposal by the Ethics Committee for a long time, and then I had to wait for the beginning of the second semester to start collecting data. During that time I knew I could work on my literature review, but I also knew I had lots of time to do it. The challenge was fairly small, and I felt that my skill was high. I also felt that I wasn’t getting much “forceful encouragement” from Ken Robinson, my supervisor. I didn’t know what expectations he had of my progress, and I thought that, perhaps, he wanted me to set my own expectations and do my work out of intrinsic motivation instead of external pressure. This would have made a lot of sense, since this was the topic of my thesis!

I met him around that time at an APS meeting in Perth. We chatted for a few minutes, and I asked him straight up what sort of expectations he had of me, regarding the timing of my work and what stage I should be at. As soon as I asked this, I knew it was the wrong question to ask. Ken said exactly what I had been telling myself all along: “I don’t have any expectations…”. However he did give a little hint of something I should be working on right now, which I found helpful and informational, but he was very careful not to make it sound like this was his expectation, or that he was putting pressure on me to meet certain deadlines. He, like me, believes that we work best when we want to work, and that deadlines, rewards and punishments are detrimental to motivation.

When the time drew nigh that my thesis was due for submission, I felt the challenge become very large, mentally rubbed my hands together, and got stuck into the work. I knew I could do it, although I relied very heavily on Heavenly inspiration and assistance. A few times I felt that perhaps I had bitten more than I could chew, but these thoughts were very short-lived and completely normal considering the difficulty of the task and the high standard of quality I had set for myself.

The most interesting part was when I had finished receiving data from my participants, and I got stuck into the analyses. Instead of just sticking to the simple analyses I had planned to conduct, I became more and more interested in other methods and how they could draw new conclusions from my data. I studied Structural Equation Modelling extensively, a technique not normally studied until postgraduate level with which my supervisor was not very familiar. I performed all these analyses on my own, although I got some help from other Self-Determination Theory researchers thanks to a large mailing list operated by the theory’s authors. I was completely immersed in this process, it was like a treasure hunt, or a Sherlock Holmes investigation. I knew there was some crucial information to extract from my data, and that if I analysed them properly I would get to it. Even a few days before submitting my thesis, I was still making slight amendments to my work. In fact, a few weeks before it was due, I realised that one of the measurement instruments I had used was psychometrically problematic, and I shortened it after a lengthy process of Confirmatory Factor Analyses.

Anyway, cutting a long story short, I believe that when we are challenged by tasks that match the things we are good at doing, we can experience intense enjoyment and this thing called “flow”. Conversely, when we are not sufficiently challenged, we can get bored and distracted, lose productivity and motivation, and crave that experience of flow.


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Motivating people to change

Today I got frustrated during the Priesthood meeting. It was a combined meeting for Elders and High Priests, and we basically got told that we were not doing anything for each other, we don’t care for each other, we have no unity etc. I won’t go into details, but my thoughts were that, although the teacher had some valid points, his approach was almost completely useless and ineffective.


Because he’s trying to motivate people to love each other, with the almost explicit assumption that we don’t. “If we loved each other, we would do this and this for each other. We don’t do it, therefore we don’t love each other.” Not only does that make everyone in the room feel judged and criticised, regardless of how much they actually do for each other, but it also fails to motivate those who are not “doing” what is apparently required as a proof of their love for each other.

The truth is, most, if not all of the priesthood holders present at that meeting are loving, kind, thoughtful people who are trying their best to do what is right. The real issue is that they don’t spend much time with each other, making it difficult for them to appreciate and show compassion for each other. How can you love someone you don’t know, or hardly ever speak to?

This illustrates the vicious cycle that maintains the problem of lack of unity: we don’t do much for each other because we don’t love each other enough, and we don’t love each other enough because we don’t spend much time with each other.

Another problem in our teacher’s approach is unfortunately extremely common in the Church: a resistance towards organised care. Somehow, organised care in the form of home teaching and fellowshipping assignments are seen as cold and void of compassion, as if it were impossible to truly love someone we have been asked to care for. The assumption is that, for true loving kindness and compassion to exist, our actions must be spontaneous and completely free from the constraints of accountability to another person.

What is wrong with that view? Spontaneous acts of kindness are certainly encouraged in the Church, but to believe that they are the only kinds of actions we should do for each other is a mistake. Here is a real-life scenario that can illustrate this:

One Sunday, an active member of the ward doesn’t come to the meetings. Under the principle of organisation-free care (a nicer way of saying “chaotic care”), every single member of the ward who came to Church MUST give this missing member a phone call or personal visit, because not doing so would be showing a lack of love. This sounds ridiculous of course, because in reality even the most caring of members would realise that 140 phone calls would be rather burdensome for the missing member to receive. However, that is essentially the message given by our teacher. The implicit message was: “If I don’t come to Church today, I expect that someone will call me, and everyone who doesn’t call me needs to love me more.”

Thankfully, the Lord’s way of caring for each other is organised. It involves effective communication, specific stewardships, accurate reporting, and assignments taken seriously. Throughout this organisation, the underlying theme is love, always love. If we see home teachers who are not visiting their families, the worst thing we can do is tell them publicly how unloving and uncaring they are, and how guilty they should feel for not taking their duties seriously. The best and only thing we should do is to ask them individually (or by companionship) about the individual needs of the families that have been assigned to them. If they don’t know, they’ll feel guilty about that without having to be told that they should feel guilty. In that case, when the guilt comes out of a recognition that one’s actions are not in line with divine requirements, a bit of guilt is a good thing, because it will lead to repentance and change.

You don’t motivate people by making them feel bad. For most people, that kind of pep talk only motivates them to avoid the speaker in the future. You do motivate people to change, however, when you acknowledge their individual strengths and efforts, ask them to report on their stewardships, and let them choose how they will exercise their authority and agency in the discharge of their divine obligations.


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