Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Balak 74 - Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation - Lishmah

Balak the king of Moav has a genuine fear of Israel now camped on the borders of his country. He enlists the sorcerer and seer   Bilaam to engage in some unconventional warfare and curse the children of Israel. Bilam suggests that they offer sacrifices to God. Balak is rewarded by God for this despite his not pure motives by having as his descendants   Ruth the Moabite, the great-great grandmother of King Solomon who would bring 'for the sake of heaven –lishmah'   a 1000 offerings. Bilam is punished for his purely negative and destructive intentions – le'kanter. 

The Talmud learns from Balak that if one feels bad that he is involved in learning and positive deeds for the wrong reasons, he should not stop,  for  one who develops the habit of doing a   positive act for extrinsic reasons will eventually come to do it with intrinsic motivation –' metoch shelo leshma ba leshma'. This principle is reinforced by the words of the Chinuch (Mitzvah 15) that 'achrei hapeulot nimshuchim halevavot' - a person’s heart follows his actions. A superficial understanding of the Talmud and the Chinuch, and a notion that kids aren't intrinsically motivated to know more about the Torah and their world  has been responsible for a blind faith in the power of rewards, incentives and competition to get positive behaviors with no effort made to help kids internalize the values underlying the behaviors. Alfie Kohn  in his book Punished by Rewards shares the research why gold stars, incentive plans, bonuses, grades- A's, praise and other bribes impact negatively not only on achievement but also on a commitment to values. – See my brief summary Why rewards Fail here. Dr Sorotzkin shares the attitudes of Torah sages with regard to competition and rewards. 

R' Isaac Sher questions the understanding of the powerful nature of extrinsic motivation – lo lishmah. In the real world the process from extrinsic – lo lishmah to intrinsic –lishmah motivation is far from automatic and full of dangers. There are plenty of examples of even great scholars whose learning was lo lishmah – for extrinsic reasons and not only did they not come to learn and do positive things but lost their place in the ' next world'. There are examples of many kids who were pushed or who pushed themselves to learn, pray, do good deeds and the like for many years as a means of avoiding criticism and/or gaining approval, and even did it well, yet at some point they lost steam with no evidence of internalized motivation. R' Isaac Sher says that Balak a spark of pure motivation for the sake of heaven which germinated into a flame of holiness when King Solomon  offered his sacrifices .From the words of the sages-Cha'zal and R' Isaac Sher it is clear that that a child  ,has to have some minimal degree of intrinsic motivation first – mitoch ha'lo lishma – from within the lo lishma there is a kernel of lishma =intrinsic motivation which the child can further develop if he has a strong desire for the development of intrinsic motivation = ba lishmah. The lo lishma = the extrinsic motivation has to be experienced not as a  tool of manipulation and control used by parents or teachers but be chosen and self- determined by the child to help him achieve his goal = lishmah. If he has difficulty in concentrating and focusing on his learning and prayers, he may reward himself if he succeeds in being focused and not wasting time for the whole week. . But better than the reward to deal with his Yeitzer Ha'ra = inclinations, is to come up with a plan that deals with the underlying problem. Motivators ignore the underlying problem. R' Isaac Sher talks about the importance of deepening our intellects using thinking, creativity, imagination, curiosity – wonder, and action =learning by doing. R' Isaac Sher further notes that if we want positive actions to have an effect on a person and his motives = his heart following his actions, his action needs to be done in a thoughtful way with careful attention to all the details and ' dikduk h'amitzvah' – finer points of the mitzvah. The motives doing the action maybe ' le'lo lishmah ' but has to be done a 'lishmah' way.  In this way he is no longer occupied with his' lo lishmah – extrinsic motives '. In any case learning or doing positive deeds so he will ensure a place in the next world or become a Rabbi with all the honor involved is more about purpose and long- term  goals rather than providing ' in the moment ' drive and motivation.

This understanding is rather different from what is happening in schools and in the homes. Learning and behavior is controlled and driven by the lo lishma – extrinsic motivation, so kids learn to ask , how well am I doing instead of what am I doing , what will I get or what will be done to me , instead of grappling with what type of person I want to be and internalizing their learning.
Instead of rewards, grades and competition, we can create an environment which focuses on making learning intrinsically valuable by adopting the 4 Cs of intrinsic motivation – Community- Cooperative learning, Choice- autonomy ,Content- engaging curriculum and Competence. Materialism can be used not as an incentive but as Rabbi Matitiyahu Salomon says to give learning an association with joy and fun.

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