Studies have proven the power of intrinsic motivation: With it, kids are more likely to be creative, set goals, and much, much more. It makes sense that intrinsic motivation should also help children do better in the school subjects that interest them. If you like writing, you’ll be a better writer and if you like math, you’ll be better at math…right? This is part of the justification for programs that encourage kids to study the things they’re drawn to (let me admit, I’m one of these parents—I want my 9- and 7-year-olds to explore their passions).
We’re so certain that intrinsic motivation increases achievement that it almost seems like a waste of time to study it. But that’s what a team of researchers from Quebec did. Their study of 1,478 Canadian kids is now on early view at the journal Child Development.
The data comes from something called the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, which measured a whole bunch of family, personality, education and achievement stuff from age 5 months to 15 years. Mining this data, the researchers used answers from the Elementary School Motivation Scale to measure kids’ intrinsic motivation for mathematics (questions like “I like mathematics” and “mathematics interests me a lot”). Then they compared intrinsic motivation to kids’ scores on math assessments in grades 1, 2 and 4.
Surprise, surprise: Kids who were intrinsically motivated were better at math. But the important part was which was the chicken and which was the egg. It wasn’t that intrinsic motivation led to higher math scores. In fact, it was the other way around: Kids with higher math scores ended up liking it more. (Economists would call math achievement the “lagging indicator”)
Again, “achievement in mathematics was found to systematically predict later intrinsic motivation in mathematics over time. However, there was no evidence for the reverse; intrinsic motivation for mathematics did not predict later (or changes in) achievement in mathematics,” the authors write.
The authors offer a couple possible explanations for this mind-bogglingly counterintuitive finding. Maybe elementary school is so tightly regimented that everyone is forced into the same work whether or not they like the subject matter and so there’s no gain for kids intrinsically drawn to math or loss for kids who would rather skip it? Maybe the assessments rewarded “quantity” of math skills over “quality” of math skills, meaning that intrinsic motivation still might help kids out-perform their bribed or bullied classmates on trickier problems?
But if you want to take the study at face value, “The present findings could mean that interventions in education that try to increase intrinsic motivation may not be the best approach in the early school years.”
I have to admit, this advice goes counter to pretty much everything I believe in parenting. But it’s also a pretty solid finding. If intrinsic motivation doesn’t create competence, does intrinsic motivation matter?
Adapted from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-trust/201511/should-we-let-kids-study-what-interests-them