School Library Monthly/Volume XXVI, Number 5/January 2010
Fostering the Curiosity Spark
by Sherry R. Crow
Sherry R. Crow, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of school library science and educational media at the University of Nebraska Kearney. She was named the Colorado Librarian of the Year in 2004. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Primary children can be a real "high"—at least I found it to be so during the thirty years I spent working with them. Their little wiggling bodies showed their excitement every time they visited the library. Simple questions about almost any topic, from bugs to trains to the latest-trick-their-pet-can-do elicited lively responses that stimulated them to look for facts on the Web and in books. Introducing these children to the world of information was a joyful enterprise—for them and for me.
Over time, however, the scenario frequently changed. Many of the children in the early grades who marveled at the plethora of beautiful resources just didn’t seem that interested by the time they reached upper elementary school. Fortunately, some kept coming back, kept searching for more books on China or continued their Internet hunts for one more bit of information on their favorite sports hero. But I always wondered why these children sustained their spark of curiosity while others did not.
The force that keeps these children (or people of any age) excited about anything is called "intrinsic motivation." Intrinsic motivation is the impetus behind doing something for its inherent satisfaction and is displayed when a person feels the "urge" to do a crossword puzzle, play a game, or look for more information about an interesting news story. Developmentalists say that people are born with this "urge" to investigate the world and that it helps us to learn, to grow, and to survive. It is this force that is seen exhibited by primary students as they exuberantly explore the world of information.
The Effect of Extrinsic Motivators on Intrinsic Motivation
However, the reality is that many of the things done in daily life are done for extrinsic reasons. People get up when the alarm sounds because they have jobs. Students study to get good grades; they do chores for allowance money. Naturally, extrinsic motivators are part of life, but the "rub" is that researchers have found that extrinsic motivators decrease intrinsic motivation (Deci and Ryan 1985).
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is all about being the origin or the pawn. DeCharms explained it this way: when persons perceive themselves to be the origin, they are intrinsically motivated to act; when they perceive themselves to be the pawn, they experience loss of self-initiation in the action (1968). When individuals perform for extrinsic reasons (e.g., for grades or rewards, or to avoid punishment) an action that they formerly performed for intrinsic reasons, the activity becomes a "tool" they use to achieve a goal or to avoid an undesirable consequence; a means to an end rather than an end to itself. The gymnast performs for the medal, the artist paints for the money—or students seek information not for the joy of knowing, but rather for an "A." Considering society’s obsession with testing, standards, and grades, is it any wonder that students' inner zest for learning decreases?
Pursuing the Question
Yet some students continue to be curious. Their pursuit seems endless and insatiable, regardless of the external demands of the educational system. What has happened in the lives of these students to keep the curiosity fires burning? Because I couldn't shake this question, I conducted a research study exploring the experiences of those students who had maintained the inner desire to seek information into their last year of elementary school (Crow 2009).
I began with a pool of 178 fifth grade students from three diverse schools in a mid-sized Colorado city. I surveyed them to determine the reasons they sought information. Of the 100 students who took the survey, only nine were found to be highly and distinctly intrinsically motivated to seek information. I then set about finding out what made these nine children tick by interviewing them, by talking with their teachers and parents, and by analyzing pictures I asked them to draw. While it is important to remember that these students were a small group from one geographic area (and, therefore, the information I drew from this exercise is applicable only to them), I hope that my findings will shed light on issues surrounding student intrinsic motivation for information seeking. The following are questions I had and some observations I made.
Can Intrinsically Motivated Students Be "Profiled?"
According to my study, the answer is "no." The students were from varied socio-economic backgrounds, had differing family situations, and represented more than one ethnic group. Some had been identified as gifted; others were in special services for learning disabilities and reading. Some made good grades and others were struggling in school.
While it is discouraging that so few students were identified by the survey as intrinsically motivated to seek information, the good news is that any student could be intrinsically motivated. A child's background need not be a barrier.
Is there a "magic formula" for fostering intrinsic motivation?
In a sense, "yes," but it is dependent on a child's filter of the world. According to psychologists who study intrinsic motivation, three psychological needs must be met in order for people to be motivated internally: autonomy, competence, and, in a foundational sense, relatedness (Deci and Ryan 1985). If individuals feel they have a say in performing an action (autonomy) and feel capable enough not to fail (competence), they are more likely to want to engage in that action. Relatedness, or a strong connection with another person, also plays a role. The students in my study, indeed, talked of life experiences in which these key psychological needs were met. Play was a big factor (both alone and in groups), as were creative pursuits and humor.
So, if educators keep the three needs in mind and set up educational practices around them, then all students will be intrinsically motivated to learn, right? Well, there is a much better chance of fostering intrinsic motivation if these psychological needs are met; however, how students filter situations also determines how they will respond. People have one of three dominant life orientations—autonomous, controlling, or impersonal—that develops over time (Deci and Ryan 2002). Persons with an autonomous orientation believe they have the ability to decide how to behave and that their decisions will impact their lives; those with a controlling orientation believe that decisions in life are based on gaining control in a given situation; and people with an impersonal orientation do not believe that their actions and decisions have any impact on their lives and that their situations are a result of random circumstances.
While people all have some of each orientation, experts say most people, especially children (since autonomy orientations are not fully established until adulthood), receive informational feedback positively, and will use it to make good decisions and improve behavior (Reeve 1996). Therefore, when educators set up environments and design assignments with autonomy, competence, and relatedness in mind, students have a greater chance of naturally responding positively to those educational situations. It really is like a "magic" formula!
Does Intrinsic Motivation Equal Success in School?
Unfortunately, "no." Most of the students in the study were either average or excelling in school, but three of the nine were struggling academically. Contributing to their struggle was the fact that these students were not very interested in school because class work was not based on their interests.
Interest is closely aligned with intrinsic motivation because it orients the person toward an object or an action, and amplifies the direction of attention (Deci and Ryan 1985). When students are assigned work that does not interest them, it is hard to get and maintain their attention long enough for them to complete it with anything but a low level of effort. However, if an assignment is interesting, it can increase students' effort levels and hold their attention long enough to complete the task—and hopefully learn something new!
What Influence Do Adults Have on Students' Intrinsic Motivation for Information Seeking?
Surprisingly, a lot! All of the children in the study experienced what I've termed a point-of-passion experience: an event that triggered months (and sometimes years) of interest and in-depth information seeking about a topic. For many of the children, adult attention turned these events into information seeking passions. Their "anchor relationships" got them to the library, took them on "interest" outings, or arranged special spaces for their investigations. And remember, these were not all kids from wealthy families. Some of the effort was just paying attention long enough to help the child find a jar for corralling worms. The key phrase here is paying attention.
Other research supports the impact of adult relationships on students' interest in school. Ryan, Stiller, and Lynch found that "whereas relatedness to parents and teachers was predictive of school motivation and adjustment, relatedness to friends generally was unrelated to these outcomes" (1994, 27). Though it may seem that peers have more sway, the active adult relationships in students' lives appear to be more influential.
What Can a School Librarian Do about Intrinsic Motivation?
There's actually quite a lot school librarians can do to foster the natural interest students have in exploring their world. To capitalize on the needs-meeting capacity of play, school librarians can have an attitude of play and create playful environments, including exhibiting a sense of humor. To emphasize creativity, they can allow for individual interest in topic selection and project completion. To provide a sense of autonomy, they can supply and give choices for many information sources, including real things and real people. To foster relatedness, they can show interest in students, and teach parents how to show interest, too. Because most of the point-of-passion experiences of the study's students occurred at the age of four or five, they can also conduct low-key research with young children. And finally, school librarians can use inquiry instructional methods.
Inquiry—It’s a Wrap
Inquiry teaching methods parallel or "wrap" much of what I found in the experiences of my study's intrinsically motivated students into a pedagogy that, if consciously used, might prove to foster more of these experiences. Inquiry is "a student-centered approach to learning in which students interact with information, use existing knowledge to form new understandings, and use newly formed skills to construct new knowledge" (American Association of School Libraries 2009, 25). Students—their interests, learning styles, social needs, and creative endeavors—become the center of their learning environment. Simply put, inquiry-based learning focuses on investigation and the process of learning rather than on finding the right answers. Adults in the learning environment are focused on students. They are paying attention to students' needs and interests and allowing them to drive instruction. Students are in the driver's seat (remember the origin and the pawn?), so they naturally engage in activity that meets their autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs*#8212;all central to the desire to learn.
Just Do It
Fostering children's curiosity spark can be pretty painless. It's all a matter of putting the focus back on students. And the reward will be that more of them will come back next year, and the next, and the next
Fostering Intrinsic Motivation—What School Librarians Can Do
School librarians in collaboration with other educators can set up environments and design assignments for students that provide:
- Meaningful, person-to-person connections ("anchor relationships")
- Creative pursuits
- Time for play
- Inclusion of humor
- Recognition of student competence
- Connections to student interests
- Student involvement in making decisions and choices
This approach requires paying attention to what is important to students, what draws their attention, making assignments personally meaningful. It is student-centered and student-driven which can easily be connected to AASL's Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (2007) which focus on the learner.
American Association of School Librarians. Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs. American Library Association, 2009.
Crow, Sherry R. “Relationships that Foster Intrinsic Motivation for Information Seeking.” School Libraries Worldwide 15, no. 2 (July 2009): 91-112.
Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. Plenum Press, 1985.
Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan, eds. Handbook of Self-Determination Research. University of Rochester Press, 2002.
deCharms, Richard. Personal Causation. Academic Press, 1968.
Reeve, Johnmarshall. Motivating Others: Nurturing Inner Motivational Resources. Allyn & Bacon, 1996.
Ryan, Richard M., Jerome D. Stiller, and John H. Lynch. “Representations of Relationships to Teachers, Parents, and Friends as Predictors of Academic Motivation and Self-esteem.” Journal of Early Adolescence 14, no. 2 (May 1994): 226-249.