What’s the Most Valuable Trait in Learning?

If I was to choose one single quality that helps people the most, not only with success in school but also with happiness throughout life, it would be internal motivation.

Internal motivation is what drives passion. It drives the quest for knowledge, it drives interest and it drives repeat exposure to something…which in turn creates expertise. Some adults never possess that in their lifetime, and I think it has a lot to do with how we structure our teaching…therefore our learning.

I have a niece who is brilliant by all standard and practical measurements. When she was about 16, I asked her if she had any thoughts about college. She told me that maybe she’d like to major in guitar. Now don’t get me wrong, I deeply value music…both of my kids are musicians, and although my niece plays guitar, it isn’t her biggest strength by a long shot…it isn’t even something she loves to do or is particularly good at. Of all of the many interests she has ranging from science, medicine, social justice, engineering, economics, literature and the like…why guitar?

The question really is: why is it when we think passion we think extra-curricular? I think it’s because those are the times that we can be internally directed. It feels like playing, and when we become so engaged in what we’re doing, we do more of it, and become more skilled.  It’s like a powerful ongoing circle of interest, learning, practice and skill.

Many of the great inventors, scientists, writers, artists, whatever… the greats in any industry…many of them approach their craft like play. The motivation comes from within. They follow their interests and curiosities as they weave in and out…they follow the winding path as it leads to new understandings and possibilities. They are often the people we call geniuses after the fact. If our goal in education includes helping produce successful, accomplished, empowered, productive human beings…we need the cultivation of internal motivation as part of our learning culture.

If we want to create a system that supports internal motivation…and invites passion in science, math, literature, global issues, as well as music, athletics, art, theater and anything else….we have to start creating and supporting a system that includes 21st century learning such as innovation, choice, relevance and  self-direction.  Maybe you don’t think it’s possible to do that while teaching content. Many teachers, schools, and districts already do. A quick internet search with terms such as Project based learning, Problem based learning,  21st Century Learning, STEM, Genius Hour, or 20% Time will start to point you in that direction. 

Here is a related TedXTalk by Scott McLeod, author of Dangerously Irrelevant.

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