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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Education as Hero's Journey

A few days ago I asked, "Why Isn't School Fun?"

Forget that.

Fun is fun. It's cotton candy and throwing rocks at abandoned windows.

I meant "fun," instead, as a shorthand for "intrinsic motivation."

You see, "fun" is less "termy." (That's a word I just made up. Making up words is fun.)

I started reading Clayton Christensen's Disrupting the Classroom last night. The early pages present a familiar problem. Familiar to me, at least, after reading the work of Daniel Pink, Alfie Kohn, and Dan Ariely. All three have written popular works based on some confounding research.

Here's the short version: Intrinsic motivation leads to better results than extrinsic motivation, even if that extrinsic motivation takes the form of large quantities of cash.

This seems counter-intuitive, but is supported by a mountain of evidence. If you want good results in tasks that require problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity, don't reward someone with cash or grades. They will do a worse job. (Explore the above authors if you need verification.)

(Insert sound of me dusting off my hands and making a face that says "Took care of that!")

Except that, well, now we have a bigger problem. How do we reform education systems that seem to exist as a monuments to extrinsic motivation (tests, grades, diplomas, jobs, money) in favor of encouraging intrinsic motivation? Can you teach intrinsic motivation? We're right back the Teacher's Catch-22 I wrote about here.

I will explore this some more in a future post, but one way, potentially, to make the switch from authority figure to....something else....is to reconfigure the educational experience into a model much more akin to Joseph Campbell's Monomyth. Here, a traveler receives an important call to venture forth into some compelling, mysterious problem. He or she encounters travails, yes, but also guides, mentors, helpers, Wise Old Women and Men. It seems, to me, that an education enhanced by the Internet is more likely to help travelers make these important connections while still maintaining important relationships at home base. More on this later.

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