Zhuangzi on the power of intrinsic motivation

Perhaps you have already heard the following ancient quote:

"Rewards and punishments are the lowest form of education".

And you may also know that it comes from the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi. But what does it mean exactly? To understand this quote, we must first understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by personal interest or enjoyment in the task itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from external factors such as - you may have guessed it - rewards or punishments. Put simply, intrinsic motivation is self-motivated, while extrinsic motivation is externally motivated.

But what does that have to do with education?

Well, it turns out that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play a role in learning. However, recent research has shown that intrinsic motivation is a stronger indicator of learning success than extrinsic motivation. That is, if you want your students (or your children) to learn and retain something, it is important that you help them find enjoyment and personal satisfaction in the task.

From my personal experience, I can say that the areas in which I made the most progress were exclusively those that actually interested me. This may sound plausible, but still, we often try to motivate children and even ourselves with rewards and punishments. And as Zhuangzi said, this is the lowest form of education.

What can we do to better support intrinsic motivation in learning?

First, we can try to promote the joy of learning in general. This means creating a pleasant and supportive learning environment at home and at school. When learning is fun and students feel supported, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated.

We can also help students (and ourselves) find personal meaning in what we are learning. If we can see how what we are learning relates to our own lives and interests, we are likely to be more engaged and motivated.

And third, we can encourage students to set personal learning goals and work toward them. When we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve, we are more likely to be motivated and see the value in what we do.

So the next time you're having trouble learning something new, or trying to motivate someone else, remember Zhuangzi's words and try to focus on intrinsic motivation. It could be the key to success.

What can we learn from this quote?

Simply put, rewards and punishments are not always the best way to motivate someone to learn. Sometimes the best way to encourage someone to continue learning is simply to help them find joy in learning itself.

Who was Chuang Tzu?

Chuang Tzu was a Chinese philosopher who lived during the period of the Disputed Empires (475-221 BC). He was a leading figure in Daoist thought and his writings had a great influence on Chinese culture and philosophy.

His most famous work is the eponymous "Zhuangzi," which contains stories and parables that explore the nature of reality and human happiness.

Artistic painting: Zhuangzi's butterfly dream

Chuang Tzu's Quote in the Context of Daoism

Daoism is a Chinese philosophical tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao, or the natural order of the universe. The quote from Zhuangzi about education can be seen as a Daoist view of the importance of intrinsic motivation. According to Daoist understanding, people should strive to live in harmony with the natural world and avoid interfering with the natural order of things. This quote states that we learn best when we let go of our preconceived notions about what is important and simply enjoy the act of learning itself.

How this relates to modern education

In many ways, Zhuangzi's quote about education is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with new information, it can be easy to forget the importance of simply enjoying the act of learning. With so much pressure to succeed, we often lose sight of the intrinsic value of knowledge and learning.

This quote reminds us that the best way to learn is to find joy in learning. If we focus on the intrinsic rewards of learning, we are more likely to succeed.

What do you think? Do you agree with Zhuangzi on this? Do you think intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation? Let us know in the comments below.

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