Why intrinsic motivation matters

Building on Puccio’s equation, creativity can be defined as the function of motivation (attitude, mental blocks) in terms of knowledge (expertise), imagination (divergent thinking) and evaluation (critical thinking).

Creativity can be a lot of fun and life-changing, but it can also be extremely challenging. I believe that a creativity class can be harder than a chemistry class. While chemistry and similar subjects do require understanding the concepts, to an extent, doing assignments and putting a great amount of study hours often equals a good result. This equation does’t really apply for a creativity class. Rather, intrinsic motivation is the key determining factor for success, as Teresa Amabile explained it:

In particular, intrinsic motivation – the drive to engage in an activity of one’s own volition, one’s passion for the subject (…) could, potentially, affect the ability of any individual to produce novel, appropriate work. I called it the intrinsic motivation hypothesis of creativity: People will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – and not by external pressures or inducements.

Similarly, Gerard Puccio also indicates “attitude and motivation” as the core elements of the creativity equation. While experience, imagination, and critical thinking are important, without the right attitude it may extremely hard to be creative. In short, no matter what you as a teacher say or do, if students aren’t motivated to challenge themselves, to explore new perspectives, and to embrace the unknown, both the journey and the end result could be uninspiring. In class, lack of motivation manifests in very clear ways: activities completed in under five minutes, lack of discussion and reflection, no questions, no effort to challenge their own ideas, no interest or curiosity in others’ work, lack of response to direct questions. The quality of the work also demonstrates little effort, similar responses, and basic ways of addressing problems.

As teachers, at some point or another, we have all encountered a group of students with these characteristics. But when this happens in a creativity class it can really flip a positive experience into a painful one – for both the teaching team and the students who do want to learn. The social environment has a strong impact in students’ personal creativity journeys and motivation, something that Amabile already demonstrated. She explained that when we experience more positive perceptions and emotions, the strongest our intrinsic motivation is; but the opposite is also true. When a group doesn’t create a safe space, provide encouragement or engage in each other’s experiences, the dynamic changes to the point that motivated students don’t feel comfortable sharing their views or asking the first question. As a result, the overall quality of the class decreases because it is much harder for motivated students to break with their own mental blocks. Everyone completes the projects, but there isn’t an inner transformation.

This becomes a highly challenging scenario to navigate – certainly requiring creativity on our end and a lot of determination not to lose our own motivation to teach. To avoid or minimize these situations, creativity classes should be elective – students must want to be in the class; they have to be ready to explore a different way of looking at the world and be willing to feel a little uncomfortable. As soon as you add a mandatory element, the magic goes away and it becomes a transactional situation – there is no enjoyment anymore. When students feel challenged or are told to keep exploring, they drop, which deepens the negative impact on those staying in the class.

What I realized after years of teaching creativity to different age ranges and backgrounds, is that you can’t blame the students – they are there because they were told to do it, not by choice. They are not ready to embark in a personal journey of discovery. If the creativity journey would be that easy, we would be living in a much open-minded, accepting, and imaginative society. Expectations should be explained right from the start (before enrollment!), so students know what they will encounter.

Teresa Amabile (2012), Big C, Little C, Howard, and Me: Approaches to Understanding Creativity. Working paper. Harvard Business School.

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