Education Redesigned for Forward-Thinking Families

It’s all the rage… Everybody knows that parents want their children to be intrinsically motivated. But what exactly does that mean, why is it so important, and how do you make it happen?

Dr. Gina Riley is an expert at answering those questions. Keep reading if you want to know more.

How did you get started studying self-determination and intrinsic motivation?

In the late 1990s, Gina was already thinking about homeschooling her own child when she read two articles.  

The first article was written by Martin Seligman and it was about Positive Psychology. She absolutely fell in love with the idea of focusing on people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses.

The second article was in the New York Times. It featured the work of Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory. The focus of this theory was on the power of intrinsic motivation and allowing people to engage their passions and interests.

She thought, “I want to live my life that way.” She also wanted to create an opportunity for her child to live that way too.

These two articles paired with her already percolating interest in homeschooling and unschooling set her on the path of wanting to know more.

What is the role of intrinsic motivation in Self Determination Theory?

Intrinsic motivation is the main focus of an academic theory known as Self Determination Theory authored by Deci and Ryan 1985.

Basically, intrinsic motivation is the type that comes from within yourself as opposed to extrinsic motivation which comes from something outside of you.

Intrinsic motivation is all about increasing passions, interests and really just allowing people to do what they love.

Most of us know what we love and what we want to do with our time and our life

Self Determination Theory is all about allowing people, kids, and adults alike, to self-direct themselves through time. It is about doing what they want to do and doing what they are motivated to do based on their passions, interests, and enjoyment.

When you think about this theory in terms of education, it makes you wonder...

Why do we have to start school at the age of five?

Why do we have to wait for school to end before we begin to explore what we really want to do?

Who says so?

Why do they say so?

Gina believes we should be training kids to explore their interests and their passions for their entire lives.

What are the benefits of promoting intrinsic motivation in your child?

Typically, intrinsically motivated people are happier, they love learning and they love skill development. Who doesn’t want that?

Parents and educators alike want kids to be excited about learning and to live life with a high level of excitement.

Overall, kids who are intrinsically motivated tend to be happier. They also do well socially and emotionally, which is just as important (maybe even more important) as academics.

What’s wrong with extrinsic motivation?

Absolutely nothing!

Gina Riley does not consider herself to be anti-extrinsic motivator. She knows they work well in... the moment. Extrinsic motivators are not evil in and of themselves. The problem is they are not long-lasting. They are a short term solution and they act as bandages.

With extrinsic motivation, as people grow and change the motivator changes too. As time goes on the motivator gets more extensive and more expensive

Just think about it, adults are rarely motivated by a bag of candy, right?

Intrinsic motivation creates a more long-lasting sustaining motivation.

How do we shift from using an external motivation to supporting internal motivation?

Traditional society is based on extrinsic motivators. We actually live in a world that is entrenched in extrinsic motivation.

Some examples include

  • Getting up to an alarm clock
  • Getting paid
  • Earning grades

What we have seen through the pandemic is that the extrinsic motivators are not really the things that matter, especially when it comes to traditional education. The grades are no longer the motivator if the exam does not exist, right?

The experience of the pandemic has given people a great opportunity to think deeply about what they really like to do and what they really want to do with their time. Kids and adults alike have had time to practice the skills that really interest them.

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that extrinsic motivators are there and will always be there. But, ultimately it is not what sustains us for the long term. They don’t really make us happy.

The first step in making the transition from external motivation to internal motivation is to answer the questions...

What really interests me?


How do I really want to spend my time?

How can parents foster intrinsic motivation?

It is important to understand that you cannot force intrinsic motivation. The very definition of intrinsic motivation lets you know that it can’t be motivated extrinsically.

Intrinsic motivation can only be facilitated. You do that by focusing on the social and emotional conditions that surround the individual. In fact, Deci and Ryan authored another academic theory known as Cognitive Evaluation Theory.

At its core, Cognitive Evaluation Theory describes three basic conditions which foster intrinsic motivation.

Condition 1 - A Sense of Competence

When developing a sense of competence the focus of the environment needs to be geared toward the learner's strengths and interests.

Even though praise is extrinsic when it is focused on the child’s strengths, it makes a difference. Be specific with the praise and focus on the effort required to learn a new skill or complete the task. Point out how this learning is beneficial to the learner.

Internal feelings of competence are important, too. It is easy to recognize when a child feels proud of what they have accomplished. As a parent, you want to create an environment where the child has lots of opportunities to feel that way.

Competence leads to confidence. That confidence allows the person to take risks and learn even more than they would have if only externally motivated.

Condition 2 - A Sense of Autonomy

This will be no surprise to seasoned homeschoolers, but it might be frightening if you are more comfortable with a traditional learning environment. Freedom and opportunity for choice can be scary but it is supremely valuable.

In a traditional education setting, kids are told what to do and when to do it. There is not a lot of choices involved. But when it comes to fostering a sense of intrinsic motivation, the choice is really important.

Kids need more freedom, more choice, not only when it comes to academic learning but just more freedom in their everyday lives.

Condition 3 -  A Sense of Relatedness (connection)

Kids need one person that unconditionally accepts them and allows them to make their choices -  NO MATTER WHAT.

The “no matter what” is the hard part!

Naturally, parents want to love and accept their kids unconditionally. But what if they make a choice that the parent doesn’t like? Or what if they take a risk their parents do not approve of? What if the child makes a mistake?

Providing relatedness might be the most important of the three conditions. But that does not mean you have to like all the choices your child makes. It is okay to say, I may not have liked what you did but I have your back no matter what.

When a child knows that they have someone who has their back, it provides the courage they need to to take risks and provide challenges for themselves. There is great value in knowing that someone will support them whether they succeed or fail.

Competence, autonomy, and relatedness are the magic ingredients needed to encourage intrinsic motivation.

Of course, parents are concerned about the health and safety of their children. As a result, parents sometimes seek safety for their children through control.

But what happens to the child who reached adulthood who has never had to be responsible for their own choices? How can that child be expected to know how to make choices for themselves and how to handle it if things do not go their way?  

As a parent, it is unrealistic to think you can protect your child from making mistakes. Mistakes can be an integral part of the learning process. Children need to learn to make independent autonomous decisions by and for themselves.

Having the opportunity to make decisions for themselves in childhood, knowing that someone has their back no matter what is really good practice for adulthood.

Freedom of choice can seem scary for parents but, it is also an opportunity to allow kids to make mistakes, then to learn and grow from those mistakes.

For more ideas about facilitating as opposed to teaching -  check out his article.

Would you like to explore the idea of self-directed education for your child, like Dr. Riley? Join the Galileo Learning Community!

Tiffany is a Galileo team member and Behavioral Psychologist who writes for the inspirEd blog on all things self-directed education, motivation, psychology, and family life.

You’ve successfully subscribed to InspirEd by Galileo
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.