Using the philosophy of “Enlightened Self-Interest” to encourage reluctant learners

Few would disagree that the development of intrinsic motivation is crucial for the overall academic success of learners and their personal growth. Intrinsic motivation is the drive to do something because it is personally fulfilling, rather than because of external rewards or pressure.

Here are 7 ways we promote intrinsic motivation in the classroom:

  • Empower Learners with Autonomy and Choice: By giving learners a say in what they learn and how they learn it, you can foster their sense of control and ownership over their education. Whilst inevitably some aspects of our learning programs are prescribed and follow syllabus requirements, learners should have the opportunity to shape their own learning experiences.
  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset: Encourage learners to see challenges as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as obstacles. This can help them develop a more positive and resilient outlook on their education. Learners should be encouraged to develop a “can do attitude” and the chance to learn from their mistakes and to see “failure” as a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of “success.”
  • Connect Learning to Personal Interests and Values: By helping learners see the relevance of what they are learning to their own lives, you can increase their engagement and motivation. Learners need the scope to follow their passions and opportunities to “think outside the box.” Teachers can perhaps provide material to stimulate the interest of learners and then to support them in their learning as they embark on projects and assignments.
  • Provide Opportunities for Mastery: Allowing learners to develop their skills and see their progress can help them feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work. We should not stifle our learners by using narrow rubrics but instead offer broad success criteria so that learners can demonstrate their mastery of a topic through a medium that best reflects their style of learning.
  • Create a Supportive Learning Environment: A classroom culture of trust, respect, and collaboration can help learners feel valued and motivated to succeed. Educational research overwhelmingly agrees that learners who feel safe and happy at school are most likely to achieve academic success.
  • Encourage Intrinsic Goal Setting: By helping learners set personal goals that align with their interests and values, you can encourage them to take ownership of their education and work towards their own definition of success. Learners need to set themselves goals for success based upon their prior learning. This is very much a personalised process as we should recognise that each learner has their own unique set of skills and talents. We should thus aim to support learners as they explore their passions and offer them the space in which they can flourish.
  • Foster a Love of Learning: Encourage learners to pursue their interests and passions and celebrate their achievements, both inside and outside of the classroom. This can help them develop a lifelong love of learning and a positive attitude towards education.

The promotion of intrinsic motivation among learners is a key factor in their academic and personal success. By implementing these strategies in our classrooms, we can help learners develop a love of learning and a drive to succeed from within. However, we also have to recognise that we live in the real world and thus not every learner is intrinsically motivated to learn. In some cases, learners may be motivated to succeed in some subjects but fairly ambivalent in others. We are aware of the dangers of using fleeting rewards systems to encourage learners to achieve short term successes that may not be sustainable when the rewards are no longer available, and thus use other ways to increase motivation, and to give the learners a real sense of meaning and purpose in their learning.

Any learner who has ever been in my class will be aware of the philosophical idea of “enlightened self-interest.” Enlightened self-interest is a powerful concept that can help learners understand the importance of making decisions that are both beneficial to themselves and society as a whole. This concept suggests that personal and societal benefits can be aligned, and that individuals can make decisions that are in their best interests while also having a positive impact on the wider community. The idea of enlightened self-interest is particularly important in the context of education, as sometimes learners are often not motivated by the prospect of improving society or the world, but instead focused on their own personal goals and ambitions. Of course, we utilize an array of strategies to develop intrinsic motivation, but we recognise that sometimes this can be a long process.

To help learners understand the importance of enlightened self-interest, it’s crucial for educators to emphasize the benefits that learners can reap from studying and working on projects that may not initially interest them. For example, by researching and learning about issues such as climate change, threats to biodiversity, or child labour, learners are not only extending their depth of knowledge in these areas, but also building a portfolio of skills that will be valuable to them in the future. These skills may include critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication, which are all highly sought after by universities and employers alike. Furthermore, by working on meaningful projects learners are not only building their skills, but they are also learning about important issues that they can potentially become passionate advocates for in the future. This kind of learning has the potential to inspire young people to become engaged and motivated citizens, who not only want to improve their own lives, but also the lives of those around them.

To my mind, enlightened self-interest is a key concept that learners should be aware of, as it can help them understand the interconnection between personal and societal benefits. By emphasizing the benefits that learners can obtain from studying and working on projects that may not initially interest them, educators can help learners develop a sense of enlightened self-interest that will serve them well throughout their lives. Ultimately, a key goal of education is to help learners become well-rounded, engaged, and motivated individuals who can contribute positively to society and the wider world.

It’s worth contrasting the concept of enlightened self-interest with the more familiar idea of simple greed or “unenlightened self-interest”. The latter concept posits that when individuals prioritize their own self-interest above all else, society as a whole suffers. Conflict arises, cooperation decreases, productivity drops, and everyone has to spend more resources to protect their own interests. In the context of education, this kind of self-interest can lead to a lack of concern for the well-being of others, including classmates and the community at large. It can also foster an unhealthy competitive spirit and a disregard for the common good, which can have far-reaching negative consequences in both personal and professional life.

In contrast, enlightened self-interest recognizes that personal and societal benefits are intertwined, and encourages individuals to act in ways that benefit both themselves and the wider community. This kind of thinking helps learners understand that success and fulfillment come from considering the impact of their actions on others, not just themselves. In this way, enlightened self-interest offers a more sustainable and equitable path forward, benefiting both individuals and society as a whole. By embracing this concept, learners can learn to make decisions that are in their best interests while also having a positive impact on the world around them.

The idea of enlightened self-interest is not only important in terms of benefiting society, but also in terms of personal long-term benefits. When individuals practice enlightened self-interest, they may choose to prioritize long-term benefits over short-term ones, practicing a form of deferred gratification. By supporting and not interfering with others’ pursuit of self-interest, individuals can build positive relationships with the groups they belong to. In the context of education, learners can learn the value of this kind of thinking. For example, in the realm of business, a merchant who is generous to their customers, even when it goes beyond their policy requirements, may have to sacrifice short-term gain. However, over time, they are likely to profit from increased business volume and a reputation for being reasonable, honest, and generous. This highlights the long-term benefits that can result from practicing enlightened self-interest, a valuable lesson for learners in school.

The ultimate objective is that learners see the intrinsic value in the project work that they do at school. Teachers may be aware that for some, the instrumental value of project work may not seem important in the first instance, and thus we use different methods to engage and motivate learners. Some learners may even be altruistic in nature and see their project work as meaningful due to its potential impact on the local community and wider society, but at the same time we are realistic in our aims and recognise the complexity of factors that influence a person’s motivation. In essence, the motivating factor is less important than the benefits associated with the learning experience, but at the same time we want the learners to understand some of the psychological aspects of motivation. Although this is by no means the main objective of the type of project work we do in schools, there is little doubt that learners benefit from understanding more about the psychology of working with groups of people.

Ultimately, teachers aspire for all of their learners to become intrinsically motivated lifelong learners, but we are aware this is a lofty goal, and if many of our learners seek success due to their enlightened self-interest and develop an understanding of how our approaches to learning are of instrumental value to their future success then we are happy that we preparing our young people for life beyond school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s