The following driving question was my problem of practice and action research for the SY-2019-2020. In connection to the work I’ve done in Gamification of Learning through my STEAM class, I really wanted to work on making sure students find their joy in learning and defining their intrinsic purpose to develop their craft. Driving Question: How do I design learning experiences where students are intrinsically immersed in their learning journey?

The Dilemma


When I think about how school systems are designed, learning has been based upon achievement, points, grades, percentages, test scores, SAT scores, ranking, and getting ahead. Because of this focus, extrinsic rewards become the learner’s purpose. This makes me wonder, are they actually learning anything or are they learning how to play the game of school? After all, it becomes a little annoying when students bombard you with the same question a week before grades are due, ” How do I get a better grade?” vs. “How do I get better at learning this?” This made me realize how much extrinsic rewards dominate the priorities of our learners. How do I refocus my class so that students are focus on learning for the joy of developing their craft vs. learning for the reward and avoiding punishment for not doing so?


“Why do I have to learn this? I’m not going to use it in my life.” This is probably the most common saying any learner will say when a learning experience is not relevant to their lives. Our learners are looking for learning experiences that they are able to use. Once they say that statement, we haven’t done a good job supporting and including their goals and interests in the learning. How do we making learning relevant, meaningful, and filled with purpose?


Our kids are coming in with different baggage from their home life, their social life, and school life. When they go through traumatic experiences, school becomes a second priority as they are in need of ways to solve their problems and fulfill an essential need of being listened to, to feel that someone cares for them, and to belong in a loving learning space you developed. Developing a positive rapport with our students and nurturing our students in a safe learning environment is key to making sure these psychological needs are met. How do we leverage our trusting relationship with students and a loving environment so the learner has the capacity to develop their craft? Our students cannot Bloom if teachers don’t Maslow.


Though in the era of testing, we’ve set the expectations low for learning as we are asking our students to demonstrate their learning through memorization and regurgitation, a shift is occurring where we are now pushing our students to apply what they are learning, to reflect, to create, and design. Our goal is to provide opportunities to reach for this high level of learning where they potentially become the masters and the teachers of their craft. How do we design learning experiences so that our learners become the masters of their craft?

When it comes to ensuring that authentic learning happens, the want to learn (autonomy), the practicality of the learning material (contextualize relevance), the mentorship and critical friendships within the learning community (relatedness), and the opportunities to demonstrate or defend their craft (challenge and mastery) are needed in designing an intrinsically motivating learning environment.

Though extrinsic rewards may seem to have more cons than pros, there are effective ways to implement extrinsic rewards where it doesn’t become a detriment to one’s joy for learning. We will explore this later.

The Science and Theory of Intrinsic Motivation

Over the summer of 2019, I have been wrapping my mind in academic literature around what intrinsic motivation is and how to apply it in a learning environment. Intrinsic Motivation comes from this sense of finding “internal” pride and joy in doing something someone loves. In other words, when one finds intrinsic motivation to do something it eventually defines who they are are, defines their identity, and defines their passion. Biologically, our reward system is constantly reinforced making someone want to learn something more in the absence of extrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic Motivation is based on 4 components: Purpose, Mastery, Relatedness, and Autonomy. When a learner has a purpose, they are reaching for an internal goal or a goal that they set for themselves. Because the learner sets the goal for themselves, they are autonomous in their process. This means they determine how they want to learn their craft. They are mapping out their own learning journey. In a relationship with purpose, the learner practices relentlessly until the skillset learned is mastered. We see mastery in so many places from music, sports, art, presentations, teaching . . . etc. When one master’s a skillset, retrieving the skillset from the long term memory doesn’t take that much effort because they meaningfully and repeatedly practiced the skillset until mastery happens. It looks easy looking in from the outside, the process of getting there was grueling. The last link to reaching mastery is relatedness. The learner must have a social connection to a person or group of people who is in the process of mastering the skillset or has already mastered the skillset. When one has a social connection to a group of people or a person, critical friendships blossom, and an exchange of feedback and/or ideas happen. This makes the learner want to improve and grow. Craftsmanship is a social event.

There is a balancing act that happens between the extrinsic and intrinsic reward systems. When one is intrinsically motivated, that reward system is sustainable as long as the learner is still wanting to grow and improve. The learner has the choice to continue or stop the process. When one is extrinsically motivated, they are constantly looking for rewards to push them along the way. The focus though is only on the rewards and not on the development of their craft. The learner has a deep need for collecting tangible rewards (grades, awards, achievements, prizes, recognition). As described by Yu-Kai Chou’s Book, “Actionable Gamification”, this need for rewards stem from the fact that the reward itself is scarce. When rewards are scarce, it becomes a threat, an emergency, and for our brain a need for survival. According to Zarreta Hammonds in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, “Threats throw the amygdala into action and derail all other cognitive processes as the body defaults to Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease. In Culturally Responsive Teaching, the challenge is to help students feel safe enough to avoid an amygdala hijack so that learning can occur.” The amygdala will override the intrinsic pathways. This reward system is not sustainable because if a person does a complex task the reward must be more valuable otherwise you run a risk of the task is not performed or performed at low quality. Over time the “carrot and the stick approach”, will cause burnout when our amygdala is constantly activated. In addition, it can be addictive and habitual when chasing the reward is repeated.

I really recommend you watching Daniel Pinks TED Talk — It’s fascinating!!

There is an effective way of using extrinsic rewards and that is when tasks are monotonous and don’t require creative or critical thinking. Never reward a person for their creative/critical thinking beforehand as it is going to kill their drive. If you decide to reward the person after their creative feat (without the rewards being known), realize they might be expecting to be rewarded the next time they do something creative. That phenomenon will potentially kill their drive.

What Has Been Done In My Learning Environment

The journey towards an intrinsic motivating classroom design has been filled with turns as my own framework of what this design looks like is constantly changing. But I can tell you what has been done as I’ve been using the following framework — autonomy, purpose, relatedness, and mastery.


When a course is all about getting good at something, then it’s about developing their own craft. The instructional design needs to be designed using the student’s interest. Data needs to be collected from the student to determine how they can transform their interest into a craft and how that craft connects to the mission and vision of the course that you designed. For instance, if your interest is building a skateboard, a math class might emphasize looking at the dimension of the skateboard and drafting a design out, a shop class can be used for building the skateboard, testing, and iterating, science class can be used to learn to isolate the different variables that make a skateboard run smoothly and faster, and art class can be used for developing the aesthetics of the skateboard. We supported the student by providing them the tools and strategies needed to develop their craft. Learning is student-driven and teacher supported.


The goal of mastery-based learning is to guide students to be their own master craftsperson. The theory is the student must practice and figure out the craft, apply the craft in a different situations, and review and reflect on what they learned to demonstrate mastery.

Mastery-Based Learning entails changing the language of grades to language that is transparent and related to their progress. In my STEAM class, I used a MET, ALMOST THERE, PARTIALLY MET, NOT MET, NOT STARTED scale. It’s transparent and meaningful to our students. We can go deeper into what those scales components mean through a rubric. It also requires the teacher to determine the learning targets that the student must meet. Transparency leads to actions.

I have three types of learning activities –

  • PHASE I- Practice and Discovery
  • PHASE II- Application and Design
  • PHASE III- Review and Reflect

If the student, accomplishes tasks in PHASE I, II, and III, they MET the learning target. If they partially completed or didn’t meet the requirements of the learning items in PHASE I or II, they Almost Met or Partially Met the learning target but they are able to review the feedback and improve the work. PHASE III is not accessible until PHASE I and II are completed. You cannot fully review and reflect if the learner didn’t put in effort.

Within the Review and Reflect phase, our students present the process and reflection of their work verbally and through a blog. By demonstrating their process, we can see the thinking that happened when they were developing their craft. Teaching others is the highest form of mastery.


The frame I use in class requires students to reflect and iterate to improve. Metacognition is structured throughout the process of our project-based learning experience. Feedback is given in from a variety of directions- from their peers, a person from outside of the STEAM class, and/or from me. This allows the students to look at different perspectives and make a decision of what changes need to happen to improve their work.

In Conclusion

All in all, I’m not demonizing tangible rewards, they do have their place in education. I’m demonizing the fact that we are doing it too much and we are using it ineffectively to a point where we are killing our student’s drive to develop their craft and their joy of developing their craft. Because of the habitualness of reaching for the tangible rewards, it’s hard to unlearn it when our students have been conditioned to do so. In designing for the joy of learning, start small, see what works and what doesn’t work, iterate it, and grow it in your classroom. Our students need to find their joy, their purpose, and need to be the masters of their craft.

–Happy Teaching

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