Bird courses, as an example of extrinsic motivation

Many university students pick their elective courses based on how easy they are. Any time a course becomes significantly easier than the rest on campus, it starts to become known as a “bird course.” For example, in the university where I’m studying, some of the most well-known “bird courses” are “Natural Disasters” and “The Art of Listening.” These courses quickly become really popular, because hey, who wouldn’t want to raise their GPA?

But this, to me, is one of the effects of students being externally motivated – how they’re being motivated to act by grades, rather than by the course material itself. Consequently, thousands of students end up taking courses that aren’t very meaningful to them, and that aren’t in line with their life goals and interests. To put it bluntly, it wastes the students’ time and energy, as well as the schools’.

In order to behave in an intrinsically motivated fashion, a student has to work against the system, rather than with it. They have to reassure themselves that “even if I don’t do well, it’s OK, because I’m going to learn a lot of meaningful information.”

So how do we fix this?

This is much easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would give students credits for being more or less interested and/or personally invested in their courses. But then, there’d be nothing stopping students from claiming to be 100% intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. And we could resort to lie detector tests to sort that out, but of course, that’s just ridiculous and invasive!

Psychologists have actually found many, many ways to test someone’s level of intrinsic motivation on any given task. For instance, you can have a person perform an activity for a specific period of time. And then, once that time is up, you give the person “free time” to do whatever they please. The more the person continues to spend their time on the first activity, the more that person is said to be intrinsically motivated.

This could be successfully applied to a school setting, but definitely NOT if it affects students’ grades. Because the minute they perceive that this test will affect their grade, they will spend all of their “free time” doing their activity. So the problem is not being able to track intrinsic motivation. The problem is when we try to use intrinsic motivation as a diagnostic tool, in order to determine a person’s grade, or to reward or punish them in any, shape, or form. Because rewards and punishments are just that – extrinsic motivators!

“Making room” for intrinsic motivation

So the solution then is not to track intrinsic motivation, but to make room for it. To give students a space (and resources) where they can pursue their interests, without having to be obsessed about their transcript, their resume, or “what a future employer/school will think about this.”

And there are many ways to go about doing this. One of such solutions is actually one that’s already in place in some schools here in North America: pass/fail courses. Here, as long as a student passes the course, it will show up as a “pass” on their transcript. The specific grade they get in the course will not affect their GPA. This solution is easier to implement than some of the other ones I will present in the future, because it fits so nicely into the rest of the traditional (and completely outdated!) system. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion, but it’s a start, and it’s headed in the right direction.

We need to expand the pass/fail system to high school and CEGEP levels, and properly explain it within the context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to students. I have no idea why these concepts have been around for over 40 years, and yet the vast majority of students have never been taught them, even though (1) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – what, we never had the chance to tell them about this even once? (2) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – these concepts are so prevalent and relevant in their lives!!


  1. “Bird courses” are a prime example of extrinsically motivated students.
  2. Intrinsic motivation can be measured, but not if the person knows that they will receive a reward and/or punishment as a result of the measurement’s outcome.
  3. Tracking students’ intrinsic motivation (in the “non-contingent” manner) will not decrease it, but nor will it increase it. In order to foster intrinsic motivation, you need to “make room” for it (in terms of space, time, and resources).
  4. One (but definitely not the only) way to “make room” for intrinsic motivation is to use and properly explain the pass/fail system.

The Hole-in-the-Wall project, as an example of intrinsic motivation

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The Hole-in-the-Wall project was dreamed up by Dr. Sugata Mitra, a scientist in Delhi. He wondered, “what would happen if you stuck a computer in a wall in a poor neighbourhood, and let children have free access to it with no supervision?’

The computer was an instant hit with the kids. There was always a line-up for it! The children taught themselves to not only use the computer, but to play the educational games installed on it.

“Now, there are 48 of these across Delhi, and the idea has caught on across the world.”

This is an example of how children really are intrinsically motivated to learn and become educated. You see, no one ever forced them to use the computer, and the children received no external rewards or grades or gold stars for playing the games. But yet, many of them keep coming back to it, again and again, and day after day. “Amazing,” eh?

On a personal level, this is something that I’d like to do someday – something really awesome like this that imparts the gift and the joy of learning to youth.

To learn more about the Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd, visit

Values-based education

I believe that our education should be more explicitly values-based. Of course, it’s important to have students go through an educational process. But students also need time to step out off of their proverbial treadmill, and take a look at what they’re doing and why. To be more mindful, and conscious of their education, rather than “just going through the motions.” The same goes for our teachers, staff, and school administrators, who also sometimes lose sight of our many “raisons d’être.”

Edit: Here is a GREAT example of a values-based education! I just discovered this great TEDx talk by Zoe Weil, the President of the Institute for Humane Education. Weil talks about how students need to learn much more than just math, English, and science. They need to learn to be morally conscious, and globally aware… to be a part of the world’s solutions, rather than to perpetuate its problems.


What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”


Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.

What’s more important: learning, or measuring our learning?

MindShift posted this question on their Facebook page.

“Why do students go from unbounded curiosity to learning in school that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.”


And here was my response:

“1) Because teachers implicitly endorse the worldview that has been passed on to them throughout their own schooling: that being an intellectual is more about how much knowledge you’ve acquired and retained, rather than about HOW you think and process whatever enters yours life. (When really, it’s a mix of both!)

2) Because we’re uncomfortable with not knowing to what degree our teaching is being effective. So we design our curricula around things that are quickly and easily measurable. And “knowing the right answer” on a multiple choice test is far easier to measure than “asking a thoughtful question.”"

Introducing Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

One of my “3 big causes” that I outline in this blog’s tagline is intrinsic motivation. This will be a concept that I intend on coming back to again and again. Now I know that most of you already know what these are… I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page before I start flaunting these terms around!

Intrinsic Motivation (IM) is when you engage in an activity for its own sake. You do it, because you want to do it, and you fully endorse what you’re doing. The activity itself rewards you with a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, or enjoyment.

Extrinsic Motivation (EM) is the complete opposite of IM. It’s when you do an activity in order to receive an external reward, such as money, grades, or prizes. You perceive the activity you engage in as a means to an end.

IM and EM have been studied quite a lot in social psychology. They are at the heart of many psychological theories, including Cognitive Evaluation theory, and Self-Determination Theory. Countless studies have been done that look at the difference in effects of IM and EM, ever since the 1960s, and continuing today. Even as we speak. Heck, I’m currently a participant in a longitudinal study about EM, IM, and life goals!

For instance, studies have shown that the following correlate positively with intrinsic motivation:

1. Enjoyment
2. Pursuit of challenge
3. Cognitive flexibility and Creativity
4. Spontaneity and Expressiveness
5. Positive Emotional Tone in relating to other

The concepts of IM and EM apply so well to education. For instance, in her studies, Susan Harter found that students’ level of curiosity and interest in school actually decrease as they age (and move through the school system). There was a particular drop when students moved from elementary to junior high school. All of the following were found to be external motivators which caused this:

3.Negative Reinforcement (Threats)
7.Goal Imposition

Don’t these sound all too familiar in our current educational system? And while the solution to this is most certainly not to simply get rid of all of those external motivators, this most definitely opens the door to break down our assumptions about each of these external motivators, and to question their effectiveness. For instance, grades may be a great way to get a student to read throughout the semester, but if done in a controlling way, it may lead to students wanting to read less after they graduate from school – not quite the “future-oriented” result we were looking for!

It is often said that our current educational system was born during the time of the industrial revolution. But, I believe, now that we have made huge progress in the field of motivational psychology, it is about time to have our educational system catch up! We need to start approaching these techniques in light of the psychological advances we’ve been making over the past few decades. And I intend to help out in this effort in some of my future posts.

In the meantime, I encourage you to watch “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation” if you haven’t seen it already.

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So many topics, so little time

Here’s a growing list of education topics that I’d like to discuss soon.

  • Inquiry-based Learning
  • The Finland model of education
  • Different schools of thought: Paulo Freire, John Holt, etc.
  • Practical learning
  • Creativity in education
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Study skills
  • How textbooks and academic papers are written
  • Academic freedom
  • whatever else will come to mind throughout my day

Let me know if you have any other topics that you’d like to discuss!

Update: Thank you to everyone who has responded and shown me stuff you’ve found as well! Keep it coming, it’s amazing! I just wish I had more time to respond to them all! I’ll have more time this summer.

The 3 things I (eventually) learned on the last day of school

Back in high school, the last day of school was always a thrilling day! Especially after the last period: everyone would be emptying their lockers and throwing away all their stuff before heading home for the summer. What commotion, what fun!! All you could see and hear were notebooks, dictées, and month-old assignments flying into the garbage. (Knowing this would happen, the school would bring out extra garbage bins, to act as recycling bins.) OK, maybe they still kept some of it, but the vast majority of it was gone, gone, gone by the end of the day.

I remember looking at this with a puzzled look on my face, but only now do I realize why I was troubled by this scene way back then.

You see, this type of scene is remarkable, because it speaks to at least 3 things:

1) How students in high school view schooling. Students are so excited to just get out of school. When it’s time to come back to school, students usually have “mixed feelings” about it. Their main reason for wanting to go back is to “meet up with my friends,” not the schooling itself.

I say, this should be the other way around. School should be so intrinsically motivating that going to school is a pleasure, not getting out of it.


It is my belief that humans, by their very nature, love to learn new things. As self-determination theorists would put it, we have inherent growth tendencies. And as Mrs. Gaga would say, we were born this way. We love to learn, as much as we love to love, and we love to have fun. While we may differ in what we are interested in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every human being has at least something they’re interested in learning about. Even if it means playing video games all day, or watching Antiques Roadshow. So why aren’t our schools tapping into that? Why are they making it so that sitting in class and doing homework often so unpleasent, so boring, so externally motivating?

2) How the students view their schoolwork. Student spend hours upon hours working on projects and assignments, but at the end of the day, this scene shows how students don’t really care about what they produced. Could this be because they did all this work out of coercion? Because they did it just to get a good grade, and not out of a pure interest in the subject material?

This shows how our school work is treated as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. Possibly, even for the teachers themselves. They, too, focus much of their attention on using work as a measuring stick for grading. This, too, motivates much of their behaviour. And they too, shred old tests and assignments within months of the end of the school year.


Grades is used as the primary motivator for all school work from Grade 7, straight into U3. (Grad students, let me know if this changes later on!) But if you strip away the role of a student, what people want more than anything else is to add value to their life. For example, when you go shopping, when you browse you weight the pros and cons of each decision you make. You think to yourself, “how much value is this going to add to my life?” and, “is this added value worth the money?”

I think that a big reason why students are unmotivated in certain school work is that they (consciously or not) realize that whatever it is they’re being told to do is not valuable enough to put the effort into it. For instance, if a student is procrastinating to study for their history midterm, part of the reason why they’re procrastinating is that they subconsciously understand how they’re going to forgot 80% of what they learn a few weeks after the test, and that knowing those facts isn’t going to do them much good.

Now, granted, this is the student’s perception on the matter. It could very well be that:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it (often due to age, or other factors)

So, this post is just a start, (please do send me your insights, and feedback on the matter!), but I think some solutions to these issues would be to:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life –> change the curriculum, or make it more flexible, so that it becomes more relevant

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it yet (often due to age, or other factors) –> find better ways of explaining (or better yet, showing) the value of what they’re learning

3) The fragmentation and discontinuity of schooling

Now, I say this one with great caution, because from my experience there is a lot of concepts that build on each other, especially in anything math-based, or based on a specific kind of vocabulary (e.g. accounting terminology). But often times, once a course is over, all of that knowledge is completely ignored and forgotten. (This phenomenon is especially present in the qualitative courses, such as those in the social sciences, unfortunately.)


Students aren’t encouraged enough to make connections between the things they learn across courses, and across semesters and years. This discontinuity also contributes to their lack of motivation. The more you make connections between courses and between school years, the more this adds value to the material. Perhaps, this relevance may not translate into relevance outside of the school (as was discussed in point #2), but at least it can provide a relevance within a student’s school life. This would then be a sort of reconciliation prize, for not having the relevance between school and the “real world.”

Conclusion, for now

So I guess my 3 main arguments from this first reflection are that an engaging education should:

1) Tap into people’s natural interest in learning and growing

2) Add value to the student’s life

3) Emphasize connections between the different things learned in school, and between school and “real life” (this will add value as well)

I hope to revisit these themes in my future posts, and to generate more concrete ways in which we can attain these (and other) goals. The sky’s the limit!


Each year, I used to sift through all of my papers very carefully to see what I would get rid of, and what I would keep. Every sheet was reviewed. And I’m happy to report that it’s all still in relatively good condition!

How education is not set in stone

How it is
When kids grow up through a particular school or education system, this school or system only ever shows them one way of going about education.

They transmit messages and assumptions about the way things “need to be,” such as:
“Classes should be taught by one teacher at a time,”
“English class needs to include one work of Shakespeare per year,”
“Recess should be about 15 minutes long,”
“Students need to learn the “basics:” math, English, and science
“Students should be divided up according to the year they were born,” and so forth.

It becomes very easy for the students to endorse the messages that their school sends them, because they’re so omnipresent. Most students are only ever exposed to one elementary school, one high school, etc. And even those that change schools, usually switch between schools that operate under the same educational system, or the same assumptions.

Some students may disagree with some of these practices, but the furthest this ever goes is a rant with their friends over lunch time.

What it is

Students usually have no say in how they are to be educated, in any sense of the matter. The only choices they have are:

1 – What courses to take, but only partially. in Quebec at least, this is the amount of flexibility at each level

Elementary: No choices whatsoever

High school: 1 choice of art class (art, music, drama, or dance), and 2-3 complementary classes in the last few years

CEGEP: Depends on program, but all programs are highly structured. It’s more flexible in the English system. For general education, the structure has been determined for them (4 English, 3 Humanities, 3 Phys. Ed., 2 French, 2 Complementaries), but students may pick courses from predetermined lists.

After a student picks their courses, it’s time for them to “put up, or shut up.” With one exception…

2 – Sometimes, students have a choice of what subject material to complete projects on, and which peers to work with on group projects.

But there is so much more to determining how schools operate! Students have very little say in:
- evaluation methods
- method of lecturing/non-lecturing
- classroom dynamics/composition
- timing of courses, day, etc.
- subject material (within the subject…. for instance, yes, they may be able to pick between history or geography class, but they cannot determine whether they will learn about Aztec or Russian history, etc.)
etc, etc, etc.

How it really is

But what we don’t tell out students, is that the way we run our schools is actually quite arbitrary. It’s got some roots in (what I’ll call) the “fundamental nature” of human beings, but that most of it is a social construction.

For instance, at its core, English class is important because it teaches students to communicate well, and communication is part of our “fundamental nature.” But most all of the stuff beyond that – e.g. what kind of books we’re supposed to read or not read, how we’re supposed to write using a five paragraph essay format, etc. – is a social construction.

(Aside: Some of this fundamental human nature is still largely ignored, though. This is where the exciting part comes in: tapping into that human potential!!  For instance, tapping into our natural desire to learn things.)

How it is… or how they can be?

Being arbitrary is a good thing. Just like how every student is different, we can adjust the way we teach to address their individual needs.

There can be many different possible solutions to educational issues. They can be in operation at the same time, and even within the same school, but administered to different students. Sometimes, the “best” solution for one student, one culture, or one period in history, might be totally ineffective for another student, culture, or period.  I believe that our recommendations should should flex and evolve, as we flex and evolve as a society.

How this blog will be

In terms of this blog, this means that many of the recommendations I will propose in upcoming posts should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t intend to have everything work for everyone, all the time, and everywhere. But I believe there should be a plurality of solutions in operation simultaneously, and that students should be given a relative amount of freedom to find the methods that work best for them.


We should be wary of anyone who tries to push one method as the “one, and only” method for educating our youth. And that we should challenge our individually, and collectively held assumptions about how things “should” be, not not treat them as if they were like the unchangeable, physical laws of the universe.

We often learn in school that for one question, there is one correct answer.
But in education, we should learn that, often, for one question, there are many correct answers.

Why the title?

It simultaneously means 3 things. Clever, eh? :P

  1. engaging [our] education: engaging our systems, schools, teachers, and students to change
  2. an “engaging education”: my goal of having our education be more engaging for students
  3. engaging [in a dialogue about] education: what I hope to do here on this site