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Originally published in The Dyslexic Reader,
Issue 16 Copyright (c) Jan-Mar1999-year DDAI.

Learning and Motivation

Ioannis Tsivanakis is a Davis Specialist and Fundamentals Trainer, and is the co-director of DDA-Deustschland

Whether I play soccer with total physical and mental commitment, drive a Formula 1 race car with enthusiasm in a computer game simulation, or am engrossed in a book I find fascinating – in all of these cases, my state of mind or active consciousness is essentially identical. As long as this state of mind lasts, it fulfills me, I am having fun, I am absorbed completely by the event – indeed, I am the event itself, I am wrapped up in the respective activity, I forget the whole world around me, I lose my sense of time. In psychology, this state of mind is called enhanced consciousness, flow, or intrinsic motivation.

Inner Motivation

Intrinsic or inner motivation exists when the specific activity itself is the driving force moving me to engage in that activity. Motivation is non-intrinsic when the activity or action to be performed only serves as the means to a specific end, in which case the specific end would then function as the driving force. For example, when I read a thrilling book simply because I enjoy that particular book, then my reading is an intrinsically motivated activity. On the other hand, if I have to read a book I do not enjoy because it is required reading in a course which I must complete to graduate, then the reading of this book is not an intrinsically motivated activity.

Intrinsic motivation is the most pleasant and most effective state of mind for learning.

During the learning process, intrinsic motivation is the most pleasant and most effective state of mind in which I can be found, for the simple being then reaches its peak of focus on a particular object. I participate with all of my senses, in complete attentiveness and with the most pleasant feeling! Since I am fully aware, more open and more receptive, I am able to assimilate a maximum of information.

If we take store of our own experience or observe other people in their everyday lives, we will find:

(1) We more easily and effectively retain those things in our memory which arouse our curiosity and interest and thus bring our attention to them. Even negative experiences are better remembered, the more directly they affect us personally.
(2) We actually learn and master those things which touch our lives through direct experience. and which affect us – indeed, which become a part of us! The greater the joy and the fulfillment of an experience, the more fully we ourselves become the experience, and the more deeply the experience forms and develops us.

The Motivating Circumstances

I have no idea why human beings strive incessantly for fulfillment; I only know through the feeling and experience of my own body and mind that this is true. It is something manifested quite clearly in small children. If children are to act of their own volition, they must be or want to be intrinsically motivated.
Let us assume that we all need to be engaged in satisfying activity and to experience pleasant things. Let us further regard intrinsic motivation as the most favorable state of being for learning. The question which then arises for educators is: how do we create circumstances in which people who learn are intrinsically motivated?
Based on my experience, I would answer: the circumstance or the condition which drives me to be intrinsically motivated during learning is an educational environment which cultivates my natural curiosity and my self-esteem, which is the source of my mental and intellectual energy.

The Anatomy of Curiosity

Curiosity – the eagerness to experience something new or to know more – is an incessant source of motivating, action-driving energy. If someone is curious about something, then the resulting actions are focused attentively, powerfully and concordantly on the object in question. Simply stated, the person’s behavior will be driven by his or her curiosity. Accordingly, if we want someone to develop interest and become intrinsically motivated to discover something, to examine something, or to learn something, we will be on the right track if we can make this person curious about it.

The conditions under which curiosity arises and the means by which we best arouse a person’s curiosity can be very different. Let us look at the following example: I am curious about a particular book because it appears to present new knowledge and insights on a subject that already interests me. In this case, the curiosity is created by something new in well-known quarters. This has to do with my personal inclinations, wishes and preferences. These characteristics are the basic elements of my (and every) unique personality.

A magic trick is an unexplained and attractive event that naturally arouses curiosity.

Let us take another example: Fabian, a little boy, watches his best friend, Daniel, perform a magic trick during a school recess. He is amazed to see a large coin inexplicably disappear! Unfortunately, he must return to his classroom immediately. But he is no longer really present; instead, he is preoccupied with the coin and the end of the class period. H wonders: “Where can the coin be?” … “How did Daniel manage to do that?” … “I must know how he did it!”

In this case, it is natural that Fabian’s curiosity has been aroused. A magic trick intrigues us because we have no immediate explanation, because we (our intellects) have been surprised and because the event appears attractive; yes, “magical”! We naturally seek explanations for things that attract our attention and which present unresolved questions.

Thus, attractiveness, or appeal paired with inexplicability (mystery), are the formative conditions for the development of curiosity.

Of course we could answer the first question by looking at a biology book, the second question by asking a meteorologist and the third question we could answer sooner or later by simply thinking about it and coming up with an answer of some kind. However, these are questions which we normally have no occasion to ask or think about because we regard them to be an obvious natural part of our world. Children frequently ask questions about thins we take for granted, because they are still young, have a free and open mind, and because the gift of wonder is still innocently virgin and not dusty or buried within them. Astonishment or wonder as the beginning of philosophy ant the sciences and is always the source of any true search for knowledge.

To summarize: the three strongest or most important conditions for the development of curiosity are:

(a) individuality, which arises from inborn personality, environment, education and personal experience.
(b) Attractiveness and inexplicability ( mystery) as simultaneously appearing characteristics of something, and
(c) Absence of the disillusionizing relativity of things we take for granted.

As soon as we understand the roots of curiosity in their substance and inner mechanics, the only thing left to do is to be aware of them, to further them and to cultivate them, so that they blossom and continue to grow If this is to be done, then curiosity is transformed into the qualities which provide the motivation for learning: the thirst for knowledge and the thrill of discover, the desire to be informed and the joy of creative activity.

Self-esteem and Fulfillment

Our inner world – especially the part making up or spiritual being – is by nature very flexible and adaptable. According to circumstance, situation, relationship or interaction, this inner world presents itself in various forms and shapes: the so-called feelings or emotion. There are positive and negative emotions, and the causes of a particular emotion are diverse and complex. Emotions can be influenced by diet or weather, by situation or experience, r can be triggered by certain persons and their position or function.

Emotions inspire or depress us; they drive us forward or frighten and paralyze us; they fulfill us inwardly or they deplete us. If we observe and analyze this interplay of emotions with ourselves, we will recognize and discover that the self-esteem occupies a special – if not central – place in the panoply of characteristics which guide and control our physical and emotion life. Self-esteem is the feeing of ones own value, and thus is the standard against which we should measure our spiritual strength and fulfillment.

We have all experienced the emotional and spiritual high which comes to us, the pleasant strengthening energy which radiates through us, when someone who is impressed by our actions or abilities confirms us by his praise. Our self-esteem is increased enormously. The message is: We are valuable! We are recognized, appreciated and liked. We are useful in our world!

We should take care that the person’s self-esteem is maintained when new tasks and challenges are encountered.

This kind of energy, which we get from other people through approval, praise and recognition, is far superior to the energy obtained through lonesome personal endeavors.
We humans are not emotionally autarchic beings like the self-luminous stars or suns. In our conduct and actions, feelings and experience, we unfold our unique potentials and personalities in social interaction with others, whether this be in the immediate surroundings of the family or other close relations, in localized groups (school, workplace, etc.) or in more complex global social structures. As educators and teachers, we should recognize the meaning and importance of self-esteem in our efforts, strategies and benevolent intentions. Indeed, we might even use self-esteem as the true compass and signpost as such!

There are no exact instructions available concerning how we should handle someone’s self-esteem. However, I would identify the following three important prerequisites:
(a) We must know the person in his or her abilities, preferences, tastes, interests and characteristics very well. Only then are we in a position to help the student become aware of his own abilities.

(b) This awareness should then be confirmed and strengthened by our behavior, in that we acknowledge and appreciate the particular abilities of this person.
(c) We should then take care that the person’s self-esteem is maintained during the process of progressive growth and when new tasks and challenges are encountered.

Only steady and strong self-esteem nurtures the motivation required to take action, to work and to learn. It is both fun and fulfilling to grow through joy. To sustain this joy, we must always maintain a balance between the level of difficulty of a task and the level of competence of the person performing the task. Each new task should present an interesting and therefore motivating challenge, but the task should not be so difficult that the person’s competence is overtaxed.


Based on the foregoing, the following question is surely raised” “If this really is the connection between inner motivation, curiosity and self-esteem, then how do we use this knowledge?”

I regard it to be the most important that each person challenge and he use his own creativity. After all, it is a different process for each of us. In order to carry this process successfully, one must have a very keen eye and be well trained in the psychology of human relations. These are qualities which one can acquire through experience or through special training. It is precisely in training – especially the training of teachers, but also educators in general – that there is a need for more information about how to psychologically and successfully motivate students. The signs are increasing at a very positive rate that there is growing social cognizance of this problem, and a recognition of the need for change!


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