How can I motivate a child extrinsically?

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FAQ question. What are FAQs?
What are the best ways to motivate a child in learning?


John Holt used to say that you "cannot motivate a child from the outside". All good learning comes from within. He adds "you can either threaten a child or bribe a child". He is largely correct as explained in Pleasure of learning.

This does not mean that parents, teachers or educators are impotent. To some degree they can influence motivation using the following tools:

  • modifying child's environment (e.g. by choice of books available)
  • conversation that affects knowledge, its valuations, and the learn drive
  • judicious employment of the push zone (e.g. to encourage a switch from a less educational to a more educational videogame)

Other than that, a child can be "manipulated" with his reward system. However, all rewards or penalties that are not knowledge-based may backfire with mistargeted conditioning. This may result in the ultimate suppression of the learn drive. In particular, grades at school are a motivator with a whole array of negative side effects.

Alfie Kohn noticed in 1995:

The kind of motivation elicited by extrinsic inducements isn't just less effective than intrinsic motivation; it threatens to erode the intrinsic motivation, that excitement about what one is doing

The best non-specific source of learning motivation is massive learning itself. This in turn requires a great deal of freedom and time.

Good learning leads to more good learning. The best fuel comes from within

Fundamental law of learning

When discussing harm of extrinsic motivation, we must clearly distinguish intrinsic motivation associated with learning (the learn drive) and other forms of rewards generated within (e.g. the pleasure of eating). While learning should be entirely driven by intrinsic motivation, human behavior can also efficiently be modified by extrinsic motivation. Penalties for littering may prevent polluting the environment. If they get integrated with the individual value system, they form a relatively harmless form of extrinsic motivation. Penalties for poor learning at school are universally harmful. They are a violation of the Fundamental law of learning

Extrinsic motivation that overrides the learn drive is harmful

Further reading

This FAQ expands on the content of "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Learn drive vs. School drive
Learn drive vs. School drive

Figure: This is how school destroys the love of learning. Learn drive is the set of passions and interests that a child would like to pursue. School drive is the set of rewards and penalties set up by the school system. Learn drive leads to simple, mnemonic, coherent, stable and applicable memories due to the fact that the quality of knowledge determines the degree of reward in the learn drive system. School drive leads to complex, short-term memories vulnerable to interference due to the fact that schools serialize knowledge by curriculum (not by the neural mechanism of the learn drive). Competitive inhibition between the Learn drive and the School drive circuits will lead to the weakening of neural connections. Strong School drive will weaken the learn drive, destroy the passion for learning, and lead to learned helplessness. Powerful Learn drive will lead to rebellion that will protect intrinsic passions, but possibly will also lead to problems at school. Storing new knowledge under the influence of Learn drive is highly rewarding and carries no penalty (by definition of the learn drive). This will make the learn drive thrive leading to success in learning (and at school). In contrast, poor quality of knowledge induced by the pressures of the School drive will produce a weaker reward signal, and possibly a strong incoherence penalty. The penalty will feed back to produce reactance against the school drive, which will in turn require further coercive correction from the school system, which will in turn reduce the quality of knowledge further. Those feedback loops may lead to the dominance of one of the forces: the learn drive or the school drive. Thriving learn drive increases rebellion that increases defenses against the school drive. Similarly, increased penalization at school increases learned helplessness that weakens the learn drive and results in submission to the system. Sadly, in most cases, the control system settles in the middle of those two extremes (see: the old soup problem). Most children hate school, lose their love of learning, and still submit to the enslavement. Their best chance for recovery is the freedom of college, or better yet, the freedom of adulthood. See: Competitive feedback loops in binary decision making at neuronal level
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