Back in high school, a classmate and I took an independent study in psychology. The only thing I clearly remember from that class is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teaching in higher education, I now have regular opportunity to observe both. The rare student who manages to be inspired by the material and the love of learning itself—that's intrinsic motivation at work. Far more common, though, are the students who press on, driven extrinsically by the desire for a good grade or the distant possibility of the perfect job. Add in the fact that many people are fundamentally unmotivated and you have a nice continuum of motivational possibilities.
It goes without saying that as educators we want motivated students. A motivated student is more likely to take the steps necessary for learning. Beyond that, I think we all sense a tension between the real and the ideal. On the one hand, my guess is that anyone who teaches is probably a motivational pragmatist: "who cares why they do it so long as they do it." On the other hand, most of us still harbor the fantasy of making students fall head-over-heels in love with our discipline (extrinsic motivation seems to always play the unsavory Hyde to intrinsic motivation's Jekyll).
Recently I've become convinced that motivation is not quite as binary as it seems. Let's put this in the context of learning. An intrinsically motivated student learns because of the value they place in the knowledge itself. An extrinsically motivated student learns because doing so enables them to achieve something else they value. But if you look in the right places long enough, you begin to notice that there may be additional ways that individuals can be motivated. Work in the fields of pedagogy, psychology, and technology all point toward a third option I call "collateral motivation." Collateral and extrinsic motivation are alike in that the learner is driven by something other than the learning itself. Like intrinsic motivation, though, the impetus for collateral motivation is not based on a utilitarian "what can it get me" understanding of value.
Collateral motivation owes its power not to knowledge for its own sake or to the desire for some far-off goal, but rather to who we are as human beings. Whether due to design or evolution (your choice), certain interests appear to be wired into the structure of the brain itself. Those with cats might be able understand what I'm getting at. Most cats I've encountered or heard of have been utterly unable to resist chasing the dot of a laser pointer. Even the most lazy and toy-averse cat seems drawn instinctively to that little red dot.
Clearly, taking about cats will only get me so far. What I want you to hold onto, though, is the intensity—even the necessity—of the cat's interest in the laser pointer. When I describe collateral motivation, I'm not referring to any of the commonly considered biological drives or urges that are wrapped up with our need for survival. I'm not suggesting that by starving students, feeding them, or depriving them of sleep you'll get learning as a result. Food, sleep, and sex can all have a motivational effect, but these are not the forces I have in mind. The cat's interest in laser pointers far exceeds the threat they pose. The same is true for our laser pointer equivalents, none of which has an immediate connection to human survival.
So what does this have to do with education? Return, if you will, to the tension I introduced earlier between motivational idealism and realism. In a perfect world, our students would see the inherent value in what we teach. The truth is that many of our students aren't motivated at all, and we'd be happy enough if they just saw success in our courses as a means to an end. Generating either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation can be very difficult. Both depend on the learner's own perception of what is important or valuable.
Collateral motivation, however, doesn't have that limitation. Like the glowing dot of the laser pointer, the hook of collateral motivation can be almost impossible to ignore. Structuring the learning process with those hooks in mind, it's possible to promote learning as a collateral result.
That leaves us with the most practical question of all: what are those hooks? At the moment I think there's a case to be made for two types of collateral forces, each of which I plan to write about in greater detail. One could be generally labeled "competition." At work in the vast and trendy literature about the "gamification" of learning, I have two early suspicions about competition, both of which may prove to be incorrect. First, I believe that what we see as competition is really an amalgam of several separate but related concepts, such as personal achievement and recognition by peers. Second, my belief is that as a tool of collateral motivation, competition may be the most variable in terms of success—or at least, the most influenced by social mores and individual personality.
The collateral force I'll examine first has a far more universal appeal, as shown by books with titles like The Storytelling Animal, Wired for Story, and On the Origin of Stories. For educators interested interested in improving student learning, I would suggest that there's no better place to turn to than the concept of narrative.