The hard thing about intrinsic motivation is just that it is intrinsic. Ideally we could always tap into a child's curiosity, excitement at trying new things, and joy at meeting a challenge. But face it, that's not always possible.
It's important to remember that extrinsic motivation (I'll give you a candy bar if you learn this list of spelling words) can work in the short term but doesn't create a lifelong learner.
I read about a study that compared two groups of kids in a reading program. One group of kids was rewarded with pizza for reading books. The other group of kids was still asked to read books but didn't get the pizza. It's not surprising that the kids in the pizza group read more books than the others. What is noteworthy is the follow-up, several months after the program: at that time, the kids who had been rewarded with pizza were reading fewer books than the kids who had no extrinsic reward! The pizza kids had gotten the message that reading was something to do in order to get a prize and didn't pick up the intrinsic rewards of reading. (This is one of many studies described in Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993, 1999) (1999 edition has new afterward), which I highly recommend.
The author of the article above recommends using lots of positive reinforcement. But what kind of positive reinforcement should we use? One point Kohn makes is that it's better to praise what the student does instead of the student's natural ability. Examples:
|Say things like this:||More than this:|
|I'm impressed at how you figured out how to do those story problems!||You're good at math!|
|You put a lot of work into that art project. It turned out great!||You are a talented artist!|
|You've been reading a lot on your own, and you've made a lot of progress!||You're smart!|
Why? Working hard and taking care with projects are things that the student can control, and when things turn out well, the student can justifiably take pride in the results. If everything is attributed to talent or intelligence, then it's out of the student's hands. Maybe this assignment went well, but if the next one doesn't come easily, well, that must just be because the student doesn't have enough talent, and the student can conclude that there's not much point in trying. (By the way, there's a lot of evidence that factors like self-discipline and willingness to keep trying after a failure are much more important to success than native intelligence.)