Leveraging Intrinsic Motivation for Learning

When my students ask me, “How would I know that I have chosen the right job after I graduated from the university?” My standard answer is always… “Well, when you are happy doing your work and always look forward to do your work then you know you are doing the right job”. This is basically the essence of the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”. This book is written by Daniel Pink (the author of another bestseller - A Whole New Mind). The main idea presented in the book is what truly motivates us and how to harness that knowledge to find greater satisfaction in our lives and our work. The idea is a significant paradigm shift and a surprising insight in what we normally believe, i.e., the best way to motivate ourselves and others is through external rewards like money-the carrot-and-the-stick approach. Pink termed this carrot and stick approach as “Motivation 2.0”. Tangible incentives (carrots) such as bonuses, stock option, and higher salary work well with routine, mechanical and repetitive work. He asserted that this approach doesn’t always produce the desired outcome – high performance. According to Pink, the key to high performance and satisfaction is intrinsic, internal motivation: the desire to follow your own interests and understand the benefits in them for you –  simple desire to do good work – when work doesn’t feel like work but something that you always enjoy doing it (he used the term “Motivation 3.0” to describe this approach). This entails basically asking yourself: what is my motivation? Why am I doing this stuff? Am I pushing or forcing myself to do this task? Am I prepared to go the extra mile to excel in my work? The answer should be as honest and truthful as possible in order to discover the real motivating factor.

The book title could well be “Beyond Monetary Reward” because that’s basically the take home message after reading the book. Realistically, a limitation of Pink’s idea about intrinsic motivation is that many people may be too busy making ends meet to seek out work or other activities that hold intrinsic interest. It’s hard to imagine that hard work is not given proper incentive and reward – it requires a significant paradigm shift. Having said this, the big idea is indeed an exciting way forward in mobilizing the work force in any type of business organization and to me it’s worth pursuing. Overall, although the tone of the book is mainly directed to business organization, I believe the idea can be adopted and adapted to educational institutions as well (which is my main interest). One passing example cited in the book is that of educational institutions such as Montessori schools that let kids follow their natural curiosity in self-directed activities. This is actually consistent with self-directed learning as one of the practices in learner-centered approach in learning.

Appying the concept to our students to promote and enhance learning is quite a challenge. Barry Corbin, author of Unleashing the Potential of the Teenage Brain (2008), describes motivation as an emotional reaction in which the learner sees a benefit, reward, or the potential for a positive reward in a task. He notes that while the extrinsic and intrinsic factors that affect motivation vary widely; the following factors appear to influence motivation in learning: Relevance, control and choice, challenge, social interaction (the chance to work with others), anticipated chance of success, need, and novelty. The question is, how do we encourage our students to leverage their intrinsic motivation? This article offers some strategies that we can try.

I would like to hear more from scholars and academics who have read the book on how we can leverage Pink’s idea to achieve educational excellence in schools and higher educational institution.

Get the essence of the book by listening to the author’s presentation and interview:


  1. I have not read the book, but watched the video links you shared. Thanks a lot for those links and letting us know the gist of his book. :)

  2. Most welcome Mostafa. Didn't have a chance to talk to you this morning. Maybe next time. Anyway, I have always been driven by my intrinsic motivation to educate and share knowledge. I think it is a very powerful force that we should seek in ourselves. Let's ask, what's my motivation? If we are clear about it, then we should focus and do our very best to pursue that motivation.


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