Unlocking Montessori – Key #4: Internal Rewards & Motivation

With Coronavirus continuing to loom, many of us are still working on our quarantine hobby. I’m looking at you Sourdough Bread Starter. While many of us started gardens or practiced baking inspired by fears of food shortages, some have stuck to the task out of stubborn determination to WIN THIS THING. You know the feeling – the welling up of excited joy when your sourdough ACTUALLY RISES and you accomplished something of personal meaning to you. 

Even more-so than quarantined adults, “Children are uniquely driven to seek out challenge.”1 and will doggedly pursue their chosen task until mastery. Just think of a child learning to walk, climb, or ride a bike. They practice again and again, even through falls and disappointment, until at last they can throw up their arms and grin, “I DID IT”. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful tool.

In stark contrast, extrinsic rewards such as grades or stickers are only a bandaid motivator – they may work in the short-term but are not sustainable for life. When external rewards become the sole motivator they are eventually necessary to inspire any kind of effort from the would-be learner. This is why it would be initially disastrous to suddenly remove the traditional grading system for older children in public school. They have been conditioned to only perform when bribed with a grade or other external reward. Once you remove that motivation, the child sees no reason to expend any energy on the task. 

“Unnecessary rewards undermine our attraction to challenging tasks and carry hidden costs. They do work, in the short term. However, unless we are prepared to follow our children through life offering incentives, then we are really working against supporting the development of the adult we hope they will become.”

Dawn Cowan, “You Can Enjoy Hard Things”

By having free choice in his or her activities the child’s interest will propel the learning for its own sake, no bribing necessary. This allows the child to enjoy the process of studious discovery and creates a life-long lover of learner. For children driven by intrinsic motivation, the reward is the lessons learned; their education – rather than being a chore or something to be completed – becomes a natural part of their development as integrated as their continual practice of motor skills and play. 

Inviting, rather than directing, a child to complete an activity is one small way to spark curiosity and independent learning. Providing new and interesting materials is another. Pay attention to your child’s interests and create an environment that supports their educational growth – whether in the sciences, math, reading, practical skills, or other play. Learning comes much easier to an interested, engaged child who practices from the thrill of discovering something new rather than to try to earn an unrelated sticker or arbitrary letter on the corner of their page.

If our ultimate goal is to raise curious, independent thinkers who love learning, we must reconsider the role of grades and other brides in education.


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