PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 12:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 3:56am

The power of internal motivation

Kelly Yang says we need to rethink our ideas about motivation in light of a new study showing that personal choice outweighs incentives


Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school writing program for children in Hong Kong. At KYP, she teaches creative writing, public speaking and critical reasoning. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School. Follow Kelly on Twitter: @kellyyanghk

A new study carried out at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, shows that internal motivation is far more powerful than instrumental motivation. Internal motivation means wanting to do something for the sake of doing something, whereas instrumental motivation has to do with the material benefits you'll get, such as good grades or a high salary.

Here in Hong Kong, there's no shortage of instrumental motivation. I'm worried, though, about our lack of internal motivation.

Students here want to do well in their classes to get higher marks. These higher marks, in turn, increase their chances of gaining entrance into a prestigious university and securing that coveted, high-paying job.

Motivation through fear is also common in Hong Kong where children as young as two or three years old fear punishments from their parents if they fail their kindergarten admissions interviews.

What you don't see a lot of, however, is internal motivation. Among the interesting findings of the West Point study, one stands out: of the 11,320 cadets studied, those who had strong internal motivations and weak instrumental reasons for attending consistently outperformed those with strong internal and instrumental reasons.

If it's true that instrumental motivation actually hinders progress, then the ramifications are huge. In the education world, it means it's time to re-learn why we learn. We need to stop celebrating every time a child gets high marks or gets into a prestigious school.

But just how, exactly, do we motivate from within? So far, the best suggestions I've read for increasing internal motivation are increasing meaningfulness and increasing choice. People are inherently more motivated to do the things they find meaningful. This applies just as much to rocket science as it does to data entry.

We need dynamic leaders, who infect all those around them with their passion.

As teachers, we also need to teach in context. Students become more motivated to learn if it's clear that the things they are learning in class relate directly to their life. One of the best lessons I did this semester was the case of Apple versus Samsung. I challenged my students to make better choices when it came to which phone they bought. To do this, we learned all about patents, used maths to calculate market share and used economics to look at market competition.

Ultimately, though, we can't increase internal motivation without increasing individual choice. Most children in Hong Kong feel no real sense of choice. It is assumed that every child will cram for tests. But what if some are just not cut out for this? Introducing the choice not to constantly study for exams might make children more inclined to learn.

Without meaningfulness and choice, it's difficult to feel a sense of ownership of what we're doing. Without that feeling of ownership, it's hard to take pride in our work and it's even harder to become internally motivated.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.


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The power of internal motivation

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