Our species has designed school to value how well children perform, not whether they learn. We measure children from assignment to assignment, test to test, exam to exam, and grade to grade. If children are too young for school, then we measure language acquisition, literacy and numeracy skills, social and emotional growth, attention span, self-regulation, cognition, etc. We even measure how much babies babble.
Our education system makes judgments about children based on how well they perform on measures that almost all parents and teachers had no part in designing. While most parents and teachers disagree with this culture, they struggle relentlessly with how to alter it, leaving intact the most important issue facing our species today: Children are being raised to believe their performance is more important than their learning.
Where I get my ideas from
I started learning my way out of poverty at age 23 after reading my first book. Six months later, I walked away from a kingpin drug dealer waving his gun around and smashing 20K of drugs off of a motel table. That change stemmed from discovering what I was intrinsically motivated to learn about – poverty.
Over the next 6 years, I dropped out of selling drugs, got a college education, invented ILM Method, started a private tutoring practice, and finally, founded 10 Books A Home, a home tutoring nonprofit for high poverty and low income preschoolers and their parents. I did all of this simply for fun. But, having fun my way required continuously:
- increasing my understanding of what intrinsically motivated me
- increasing the challenge and complexity of what I learned
- transforming my beliefs and behaviors
Later on down the road, I learned that I was not alone in having this type of fun. Famed BMX rider and businessman, Matt Hoffman, said about learning to do bike tricks on a halfpipe when he was young, “If you were going to have fun the way I liked to have fun, you were going to wake up on the ramp unconscious.” Learning for the sake of learning fills people with the type of purpose that takes them down unique roads.
Because I was not in school, no one stopped me from learning for the sake of learning. I was free to start reading one book, and midway through, switch to reading another book. I was allowed to read whatever chapter motivated me most. No one scorned me for writing in the books or marked me down for disagreeing with the authors. I learned in whatever way suited me most.
Learning based on my intrinsic learning motivations helped me locate the ideas that motivated me most. By learning for fun I was developing important skills, knowledge, abilities, and habits that would help me contribute to my species later in life when I founded 10 Books A Home.
Where success comes from
Criss Cheatham is one of many examples. Despite not becoming a “famous musician”, Criss did something more impressive. He stayed devoted to music no matter what. Over the course of some 15 or 20 years, Criss played more than 3,000 shows, scouted and booked hundreds of his own shows, fell victim to drugs and fans, lost band members, drove his family away from him, invented virtual band members when his musicians dropped out, played a show for 24 hours straight, reformed himself and played in a gospel band, made music videos, reunited with his family, built bands with strong family values, and is making a living for him and his family as a musician. Criss’ intrinsic learning motivation for music caused him to learn and transform himself in order to stay devoted to music. In the process, he succeeded.
More than 50 years of intrinsic motivation research shows that intrinsically motivated people seek more challenging work and perform better. They also demonstrate more creativity and persistence, and experience higher levels satisfaction, joy, and meaning. In school settings, intrinsic motivation is associated with improved academic performance and happier students at all grade levels. Yet, intrinsic motivation declines from when children enter kindergarten until high school graduation. A lot of what we know about how to succeed in school and life is left out of how we educate our children.
The problem of why we educate our children
This is where I return to the problem of why we educate our children. We value short-term performance on arbitrary measures of knowledge. We say children are “smart” if they remember what we expect them to know, score well on assessments and tests based on what we expect them to “learn”, engage in habits like reading books younger than most children, or spew out facts and knowledge or operate computers with “less effort” than most children. Our definition of success in children is generally whether they meet our expectations.
These measures of success fail to take children’s intrinsic learning motivations (ILMs) into consideration – children’s potential. They succeed only in judging children by comparing them. This is bound to make a basket case out of any child. All humans are born with intrinsic learning motivations, meaning they are genetically endowed to explore, learn, create, and understand. Children should not be forced to succeed by anyone’s standards. Instead, they should be encouraged to define their own success by leveraging their potential - their ILMs.
There’s no limit to human potential. But, our current education system stifles the activation of potential by expecting children to perform the same tasks, develop the same skills, and acquire the same knowledge. It’s no wonder why so few people contribute in big ways. Common among these people is they usually need to “buck the system”, “be rebellious”, “have an entrepreneurial spirit”, etc. Are these people outliers? Of course not. They simply choose to pursue their intrinsic learning motivations (ILMs). They succeed by continuously learning for the sake of learning.
History is replete with examples of what happens when people pursue their ILMs. Hugh Herr lost his leg after falling off of a mountain, went to college to learn how to design a leg so he could mountain climb again, and today is a leading prosthetic scientist. Mike Tyson discovered boxing in jail and for the ensuing six years intrinsically learned so much that he became a heavyweight world champion.
It’s truly a head scratcher that even though we’ve entered into the day and age when people can build billion dollar companies on their laptops and access huge chunks of human knowledge on internet search engines, we still insist we know what children need to learn. I’ll be the first to advocate for parents and teachers, but I’m willing to “buck the system” by proposing that we change how we parent and teach.
If we want our children to succeed
The scariest thing about modern day society is that almost all children in all countries don’t like school. Most feel that it is a waste of their time and would rather not be in school. By the time they drop out, graduate, or go to college most people have little motivation to learn beyond what is required or will help them advance in their career, status, image, or leisure. This is a massive waste of human potential.
Humans are born naturally motivated to learn. School should be designed to capitalize on this fact. If it were, people like Elon Musk, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Steve Madden would be much more common. That’s because people would be allowed to learn about things that motivate them, leading to the intensity and frequency of learning required to make contributions to society like the people who I just mentioned, and countless others.
If we want our children to succeed, then it’s time we start educating for human potential instead of forcing our children to meet our expectations. It’s time we cultivate the intrinsic learning motivations (ILMs) of our children. If we make this one change, our children will finally be able to succeed.