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Explaining the Difference between Internal and External Motivation

Using a  butterfly analogy easily explains the Hierarchy of Social Development.

A major problem in learning occurs when students exhibit inappropriate behavior during a lesson. The usual approach in working with the youth in question is to refer to the irresponsible behavior. This approach oftentimes leads to an escalation of anxious feelings on the part of both the teacher and student. The reason is that anyone, regardless of age, finds it extremely difficult to separate oneself from one’s behavior. You can prove this to yourself by reflecting on your last evaluation. Was your self-talk something like, “Well, my evaluator is not talking about me-just my job performance”? If you didn’t separate yourself from your performance, how can we expect a young person to do the same, i.e., separate the act from the actor, the deed from the doer, a good kid from an irresponsible behavior?

One approach used around the world is the Raise Responsibility System. Four concepts are taught at the outset. When an irresponsible behavior occurs, the teacher asks the student to identify the chosen level from among the four concepts. If disruptions continue, the teacher elicits a procedure or consequence to prevent future irresponsible impulses.

The four concepts comprise the Hierarchy of Social Development. As with any hierarchy, there is a natural desire to reach the higher levels. The hierarchy refers to two unacceptable lower levels as Level A (anarchy), Level B (bossing/bullying) and two acceptable levels: Level C (cooperation/conformity) and Level D (democracy). The difference between the two higher acceptable levels of C and D is in the motivation—not in the behavior. For example, if there is trash on the floor and the teacher asks a student to pick it up and put it in the trash basket, and if the student does so, then that would be Level C motivation. If, however, the student takes the initiative to pick up and throw away the trash, the motivation would be on Level D. In the former case, the motivation was external (from the outside); in the latter case it was internal (from the inside). In both cases the trash had been picked up. One essential part of the system is that students are constantly reflecting on their motivational choices, viz., internal vs. external.
NOTE: Technically, all motivation is internal. Also, the term “internal” is used because responsibility is something developed; it is not necessarily “intrinsic.”

Here is an example of how the levels can be explained to young people above the third grade. (Other examples are used for younger children.) Began by reminding students of their study in third grade of the life cycle of a butterfly. They recall that there are four stages of development: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Talk about how all butterflies are in some stage of this process but have no control over their movement through the process.

Move to comparing the butterfly’s life cycle to that of humans. Humans go through four basic stages as well. We call them: baby/infant, child/youth, adolescence/teen, and adult/grown-up. Students will agree that humans, like the butterfly, have little control over stages of their physical development.

Then look at the four stages of social development in which one human being and/or an entire society operate. Explain what a human and a society in anarchy would look like and how such a situation would be so hopeless. Then talk about what would likely occur to remedy the problems of an anarchy-based society. “Someone would rise up and take control, thereby becoming the boss/bully (Level B).” Look at countries around the world where these levels can be observed.

Move on to looking at the level of external motivation (Level C) in a group of friends. The group works together to share control based on what they agree is their mission and that oftentimes this mission and the group control is not even discussed; it is more or less just understood among the group members. From here, lead a discussion of how blind conformity can develop and how this type of cooperation is not necessarily good (e.g., irresponsible behavior egged on by peer pressure).

Now look at internal motivation (Level D-how being considerate of others and cooperating for the right reasons result in a democratic society. The discussion will lead to doing what is right because we know it is the best thing to do and is on a much higher level of development than doing what is right as a result of outside influence (Level C). Conclude by talking about how we have more control over our stage of social development than we did over our stage of physical development. The thought of being in control over something heightens interest in wanting to be motivated internally, rather than externally.

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Dr. Marvin (Marv) Marshall
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