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The Wall Street Journal isn’t a publication I turn to for comic relief (although I do really like their Pepper. . . and Salt cartoons), so I was delighted to find a funny and educationally-relevant article this morning about two kids playing with Legos. The article got me from the opening paragraph:

 “Learning programming is awesome when you’re making Lego robots fart. ‘Usually Legos cannot fart, so we made these Legos fart a lot,” says Eleanor, 9 years old, who helped me code dance moves, jokes and simulated bodily functions into Lego Boost, a new take on the iconic bricks. ‘Also burp. Don’t forget the burping' she adds."

Although I still find this type of humor funny, there is a larger message here about intrinsic motivation that applies to teaching and learning, as well as management.

Intrinsic motivation occurs when people have an inherent interest in pursuing a topic and it is this interest, or curiosity, or feeling of accomplishment in learning and growing, that motivates people to ‘stick with it’ through challenges and obstacles. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is motivation that comes from a reward outside of oneself, such as a monetary reward, promotion, or grade. For learning – and creativity, innovation, and work satisfaction – intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation.

So how to you stoke intrinsic motivation? In his paper, Motivating Factors for Adult Learners in Higher Education, Olusegun Agboola Sogunro discusses eight motivating factors for adult learners:

  1. Relevance and pragmatism
  2. Interactive classroom and effective management
  3. Progressive assessment and timely feedback
  4. Self-directedness
  5. Conducive learning environment
  6. Academic advising
  7. Quality instruction
  8. Quality curriculum

It’s not hard to see the parallels to managing employees.

I try to ignite intrinsic motivation in the classes I teach and have been doing this for several years in my Making Teams Work class, where students do a very challenging team project, and am baking these concepts into my new course, Creativity and Innovation. In student discussions and from the comments in my teaching evaluations, it bears out that students enjoy the learning more – and work harder and learn more throughout the process – when they understand the practicality and applicability of what they’re learning, can be more self-directed in their assignments, get relevant and timely feedback on their work, and when the penalty for trying something hard and not reaching the target is low (as long as they learn from the experience – which is another assignment!), etc.

There’s a paper posted on the Davidson Institute that talks about strategies for enhancing motivation in students (which also apply to people we lead in organizations), including:

  • Challenge them
  • Build on strengths first
  • Offer choices to develop ownership
  • Provide a secure environment – failure shouldn’t be fatal, as it can help the learning
  • Use rewards and punishment with caution
  • Avoid power struggles
  • Use ambiguity occasionally
  • Teach them to evaluate themselves
  • Help them understand the relevance of their activities (the benefits that will be realized)
  • Offer open-ended activities to develop creativity

Back to Eleanor in the WSJ article:

 “When Eleanor and her brother Wes, 6, began programming the cat, one of the first exercises was to give it a Lego-brick bottle of milk, which it ‘drinks,’ triggering simulated feline flatulence. Later, Wes had a Eureka moment, figuring out how to make Vernie [a Lego robot] move forward and shout, “OMG” when he clapped his hands.”


You’re awesome, Eleanor and Wes – keep going! And thanks, Lego, for creating a product that lets kids learning while discovering some fun and funny things, and Geoffrey Fowler, for writing such a great article about the kids and their learning process!




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