The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Reclaiming Learning Spaces for Intrinsic Motivation

I witnessed a unique spark in a group of boys from Delhi I met at the breakfast table during the IDEC 2018* conference held in Bangalore. I had read about the innovative program they were part of in a Delhi government school called Creativity Adda** and I knew about the deschooling movement of Shikshantar Andolan. One of the boys had a camera around his neck. He willingly and excitedly showed me all the pictures he had taken. He aspired to become a photographer. The twinkle in this young teen’s eye was enough for me to see his passion in photography. The Media Hub at the Creativity Adda had helped him find his interest and supported him in enhancing his skills and deepening his curiosity. Another teen shared that he loved cooking. He recently cooked for a group of more than 200 people and could confidently make over 50 recipes. These young boys were eager to talk about their interest areas and their journeys in following their passion.

When my oldest son was a toddler, I was fascinated by the way he learnt. Contrary to our current popular beliefs about attention span, he could stay engrossed in the subject of his interest for many long hours. As he grew older, his interests, mostly about animal life, moved from snails to dinosaurs to snakes to marine animals to insects and then to micro-organisms. He would carefully scrutinize every page of a book over and over again and engage in repetitive activities that aided development of mastery. I could see the same level of involvement in my second son when he was creating something using paper. He could sit for hours cutting and folding paper to make his desired object of imagination. The questions that perplexed me then were, “Where did they get their motivation from? Why didn’t they display this level of immersion while at school? How did they lose this inner desire to learn and express?

Though I occasionally saw a spark here and there, I had never witnessed this high level of immersion during my 8-year stint as a teacher. The conversations in the staff room too were about how children could not stay focused and the amount of energy spent by teachers in getting children to pay attention.

In our behaviourism-influenced schooling world, the strategies used for getting the children to focus and pay attention in class were often centered round a reward or a threat of punishment. Stars, stickers, clips, class monitorship for displaying a positive behaviour and black dot, colour cards, diary note, extra homework, call to parents, extra chores for a negative behaviour. These carrot or stick techniques often yielded the desired result outwardly but also had a flip side. Daniel Pink, in the chapter ‘Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (often) Don’t Work’ from his book Drive noted that science is revealing is that carrots and sticks can promote bad behaviour, create addiction, and encourage short-term thinking at the expense of the long view.

My children too were victims of these external ways used for behavior control and modification. As they grew up, their lack of interest and their reluctance to engage in anything bothered me. My older son had slowly developed an aversion to drawing and found science boring. The boys who had been full of creative ideas and solutions to our daily life challenges now displayed a total disinterest in resolving any problem. They often asked me for something in return or had an endless list of excuses to not complete some tasks given to them.

Alfie Kohn in his critique of behaviorism theories has written about ‘The do this and you’ll get that’ approach used to control the actions of others in his book, Punished by Rewards. The focus of one’s actions shifts from, ‘What I really want/need’ to ‘How do others want me to perform.’ As one gets conditioned to behave in a certain way keeping the external reward in mind or in fear of something unpleasant, one slowly loses touch with one’s inner compass. Even the questions children ask and want to explore shift from real things happening within and around them to questions limited to what will ultimately appear on the examination.

Coming back to the question, “What motivates children?” one needs to dig deeper into understanding what is motivation? Alfie Kohn describes, “Without really thinking about it, we tend to assume there’s something called ‘motivation’ — a single entity of which someone can have a lot or a little of… Unfortunately, it isn’t. In reality, there are qualitatively different kinds of motivation, and the kind is more important than the amount. What matters is whether one is intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity (which means one finds it valuable or satisfying in its own right) or extrinsically motivated (which means that doing it produces a result outside of the task, such as a reward).”

We come from a factory education system that lauds the carrot and stick approach. This is evident in the weightage given to behaviorist theories in any teacher training, child development and human behaviour syllabus. It is seen in the rising competitive activities, awards and rewards and classroom management techniques used by educational institutions . The irony is in the fact that while schools rely on extrinsic motivation, most self-help books and recent therapeutic intervention theories talk about bringing back intrinsic motivation and finding your deeper calling and your inner passions. In interacting with the boys from Creativity Adda and with my own children who are unschooling themselves, I have observed the following as useful conditions for supporting intrinsic motivation:

Acceptance and Community: The children I met at the breakfast table at IDEC2018, weren’t engaged in learning to ace an examination, get rewarded or to show off that they were good at something but were learning because they were immersed in something that was of great personal interest or enjoyment. They had this deep desire to understand and connect more and more. They engaged in what they felt was relevant and meaningful for themselves. There wasn’t any external factor driving it. They were acting out of joy and love, not out of fear or a need to earn approval. Ashish Tiwari, co-founder, noted that “Creativity Adda gives children an opportunity to first understand themselves, their uniqueness, their talents and their dreams. It encourages them to freely identify and pursue their own learning goals. The focus is on being comfortable with who you are, knowing how you learn best and accepting/not judging others.”

Yogesh, a seventeen year-old who found his passion in music at the Creativity Adda, shared, “Everyone encouraged me in pursuing my passion in music and helped me get access to various instruments, facilitators, learning programs and more opportunities to perform. It feels like another family.” These energetic Adda boys told me that they don’t like to miss a single day. They feel valued and respected at the Adda for who they are. Most importantly, they are not continually being compared to others or humiliated in front of others. As Alfie Kohn puts it, “Being accepted unconditionally is what allows children to accept themselves unconditionally.”

Faiz, another young boy added that, “At the Adda, everyone believes in you and tells you that if you want to learn something, you can do it. Just keep on trying. We are encouraged to practice everyday and make mistakes without fear of being punished.” This boy found his passion in skating and skated everyday in the Adda for two years despite pressure from his parents. He recently participated in national roller skating championship (with predominantly private school students) for the first time and won a silver medal. Along the way, he has also gotten interested in music, art and cooking.

In the spirit of acceptance, I was most intrigued to hear the following comment from fifteen year old Sakib, “It is okay if I sometimes just hang around and do nothing too.” I have found that even when my children are ‘doing nothing’, oftentimes some very powerful things are happening inside them.

Autonomy and Free Play: Children are designed by nature to learn through free play and exploration. The process is just as important as the outcome. This starts with children choosing what they want to learn. The process is not always smooth. Sometimes the children might come back to something they really like, and other times they might not. For example, a few Adda children engaged in repairing a drone in the Makerspace-Design Studio. During the process they not only repaired it, but also learnt about the science behind it. They learnt to collaborate, problem solve and tryout their ideas. They coped with failures, limited tools and started afresh with new thoughts and ideas. Unlike the time-bound projects given at school, the children at the Adda had the freedom and the time to keep trying and working on the drone for as long as they wanted. They were not graded nor were they in competition with others. Their sense of joy came with being together in the project as well as from seeing their drone fly.

Collaboration and Real World Challenges: Ashish Tiwari shares, “The learning environment at Creativity Adda invites children to not only relate to what I want to do for myself and for my own sake, but how I engage in doing something for others, taking care of each other, sharing and exchanging skills with others, doing something for the well-being of the community. They know that collaborating with others deepens their learning. They also see the daily impact of their efforts in the Adda community.” This sense of responsibility is apparent in the way children of Creativity Adda take care of the learning center and help each other. For example, the children at the Slow Food Chef’s Academy manage their kitchen and their kitchen garden. One of the boys recently designed and constructed a dish washing area that would help save water. Other children research new recipes at home and bring them to Adda to share and try out. They also cook what they learn at the Adda at home for the families. Faiz, the young teen who won a medal at the national roller skating competition, is continuously helping other interested children learn skating.

Post IDEC 2018, I saw a few boys engrossed in making litti chowka (a traditional dish popular in Central and Eastern India) on a open fire at LSUC 2019*** held in Orissa. I recognized one of them and immediately knew that these were the Creativity Adda boys. They were beaming with joy while working on starting an open fire to roast the littis (tiny balls of wheat flour). There was laughter, jokes and a bit of light-hearted teasing. These boys were all passionate about food and shared that they loved cooking and trying out different recipes and different methods. Seeing this joy and togetherness among these young teens completely immersed in their preparation was unique — a rarity in our current current world of continuous stress and competition.

I noticed that the children in Creativity Adda were learning to give/receive feedback to each other as well as to assess their own standards for improvement. For intrinsic motivation to thrive, continuous feedback from the real world is very important. This can take on many forms such as, repairing a broken oven for someone in the local community, cooking and serving ragi cake or ragi dosas to customers in a local fair, performing music in a community event.

I have seen that intrinsically motivated children, take on real challenges with a smile. One can see focus and deeper concentration. There is a palpable sense of persistance and resilience. They fall and they fail, but they rarely give up. They might take a pause or might move on to different interest areas, but don’t let these experiences shatter their confidence, curiosity or creativity.

It’s been about two years since my children opted out of school and we adopted an unschooling lifestyle and a self-designed learning path. My children now engage in activities that they are intrinsically motivated for and have left the path of marks and competitions. My older son, who just turned fourteen, is keen on travelling. He enjoys cooking and has gotten back to sketching. He recently went on a trip to Meghalaya with a few unschoolers. My second son engages in various things that interest him — table tennis, super heroes, origami, craft work, outdoor play and creating games and toys for his little sister. Our youngest who is about to turn five is like a butterfly — her interests have fluttered from nail paints — to baking — to gardening — to ballet. She learnt to skate recently with a little help from her brother and loves pretend play. She is very clear that she doesn’t want to go a school, but would love to explore free learning spaces like Creativity Adda.

Notes:

*Creativity Adda, based in a low income boys senior secondary school in Mukherjee Nagar, Delhi, is an after school self designed learning program. It is run through five hubs — Slow Food Junior Chef’s Academy and City Organic Farm, Community Media Academy, Designlab-Makerspace, Art, Music and Dance Studio, and Sports and Fitness Centre. About 80 children come to the Adda daily. The project is supported by the School-Management Committee, Shikshantar Sansthan, Dharampal Satyapal Group. For more updates on Creativity Adda — follow their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/creativityaddadelhi/

**For more information check www.indec.net.in

***To know more about LSUC — www.shikshantar.org/lsuc