Motivation and Creativity

girlsstudyingscienceHere we look at the last pair of connections in the Creativity in the Classroom model— the relationship between creativity and intrinsic motivation.

The person who is best known for identifying links between creativity and intrinsic motivation is Teresa Amabile. She compared the interaction to the feelings of rat in a maze. If the rat is motivated by an extrinsic reward (cheese, for example), it takes the straightest line to the reward and gets out of the maze as quickly as possible. If the rat is intrinsically motivated, it enjoys being in the maze. It wants to explore the maze, take time in it, and find all the interesting nooks and crannies there. The intrinsically motivated mouse is much more likely to find an interesting or creative way through the maze. Amabile has done a number of studies with children and adults, suggesting that pursuing an activity for intrinsic reasons—rather than in search of a reward—is more supportive of creativity. Of course, this doesn’t mean creativity can’t ever exist with rewards—otherwise how would anyone in creative professions be paid? But when we are talking about students in school, protecting and supporting intrinsic motivation is one important thing we can do to support creativity—and learning.

teacherwithstudentsTwo other important researchers in the area of intrinsic motivation are Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. Ryan and Deci write about intrinsic motivation, but also about goal-directed types of extrinsic direction that reflect the “motivation to learn” described under Learning for Understanding and Motivation. Sometimes learners are motivated not by interest or joy in the immediate task (say, practicing an exercise on descriptive language) but because they believe it to be a step toward a goal they value (writing a really scary Halloween story). Both this type of “stick to it to reach the goal” motivation and the playfulness of intrinsic motivation are essential for creativity in schools—and, I would argue, creativity anywhere. It is a rare creative task does not have moments when it is necessary to push forward through difficult times  toward the creative goal.

Whichever researcher we read, several factors are consistently described as supporting intrinsic motivation. Think about what it would mean to have a classroom in which these were key goals.

Interest. Not surprisingly, human beings are drawn to things they find interesting. Students who have the chance to tie classroom activities to their interests (or are introduced to new and interesting ideas) are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. To teachers, this will come as no surprise, but not all the factors are quite so obvious.

Autonomy. To feel motivated, students need a sense of autonomy. Several studies found that teachers who supported students’ sense of autonomy and control (rather than being overly controlling themselves) increased students’ curiosity, intrinsic motivation, and desire for a challenge. And wouldn’t we all want students like that?

oopsCompetence. Don’t you just hate to feel incompetent? Just recently, despite all my training and experience, I accidently erased a file. I felt like such a fool, I didn’t want to work on the project at all. The same thing happens to students in school. If they are to be motivated, they can not be made to feel foolish or incompetent. Providing appropriate level challenges, and then clear evidence of learning and improvement goes a long way to increasing motivation.

Finally, there is one more factor Ryan and Deci found essential for the goal-directed extrinsic motivation associated with learning.

Relatedness. Students need to feel part of a community. The more they feel respected and cared for by the teacher, the more likely they are to decide to share the values of the classroom culture—and value learning.

These are challenging teaching goals. Help students find classroom activities interesting. Support them in independence and goal setting. Help them progress, and clearly communicate when they are doing so. And, oh by the way, make them all feel accepted and cared for. It can feel a bit overwhelming. And yet—look at the benefits. Helping students become more intrinsic and goal-motivated learners will help them learn, and support their creativity.

Sounds worth it to me.



 Learning for Understanding                                Intrinsic Motivation and Motivation to Learn

Amabile, T. M. (1989). Growing up creative. New York: Crown.

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67

8 thoughts on “Motivation and Creativity

  1. Pingback: Time for Exploring! « creativiteach

  2. Pingback: Motivating Creativity | Be G.R.E.A.T. Academy

  3. Pingback: Motivating Creativity | Delightful & Distinctive COLRS

  4. Developing a students intrinsic love of learning is critical. You must use interest, autonomy, competence and relatedness to develop it.


  5. When interest, autonomy, competence and relatedness are all incorporated, the learning becomes intrinsic. These factors together give the learner a feeling of having some control of their learning, getting more value from the learning and the ability to use the knowledge.


  6. Everything in this article is so true. I recently decided to teach a unit on recycling and have the students create their very own cardboard recycling project. When I told them, they will use their own creativity and imagination, you should have seen the excitement and motivation to learn. The very next day, and since then, students have been donating all sorts of cardboard items.


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