The Force of Discovery

It was late, and as the frequency of the clock’s ticking drove itself deeper and deeper into the back of Mikial’s mind, he found himself less bound to the world itself. How long had he been sitting here? Hours? Days? Weeks? He wasn’t entirely sure, and he most certainly didn’t care. Nothing in the whole world mattered to him except the papers haphazardly strewn across his dingy desk, illuminated by the unreliable glow of a single incandescent light. The equations before him, mere ink on pages, dominated his every thought, his very being. No matter how long he stared and how hard he thought, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the patterns in the data before him. It just didn’t make sense. He had ran the calculations for the electron’s kinetic energy dozens of times, and he must’ve re-measured the density and thickness of the plate twice as many, but for whatever reason, every single run of the experiment showed the same result.

He couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the first thing on his mind when he went to sleep (which wasn’t often, mind you), it was the first thing on his mind when he woke up, and it was the first thing on his mind at all hours in between. His friends were starting to become concerned, but who cares? They didn’t understand. Nobody understood the charge differential on the opposite side of the plate’s surface. The other workers in the lab said that it must have been a fluke, perhaps an error in the machines, but Mikial knew it couldn’t be. It kept appearing in the experiments he had been running in his basement every few dozen tries, and those machines were perfectly calibrated. There had to be some explanation. The explanation wasn’t coming, however, and the longer Mikial stared at his data, the more the tension in his heart grew.

Suddenly, the scientist noticed a shadow dancing across the equation on the paper before him. He turned his head to look at the dim bulb above his head, now being assaulted by a rather large moth. He watched the moth smash into the bulb again and again, making a small clicking sound with each collision… That was it! Mikial’s eyes grew wide as he felt his heart swell, jumping to his feet and grabbing his head. It finally made so much sense. A smile broke across his face as he turned back to the equations on the table. He couldn’t help but laugh out loud as he punched the numbers into his calculator. His laughter grew, celebrating his glorious victory as his pen wrote a single word: “Tunneling”. 

There’s an age old question about the nature of humanity: Are we just clever apes driven by our instincts and need to survive, or are we something more? In other words, we’ve always been interested as a species in why it is that we do what we do. The entire discipline of Psychology is based around asking this question, and  of course, the answer depends on who you ask, but one thing is certain: humans are inherently curious creatures.

Whether you believe that curiosity is a result of some grand, unifying, destiny beyond our comprehension or if it’s just an advantageous trait that mother nature deemed useful is besides the point. The fact of the matter is that our curiosity is humanity’s greatest strength, and all people have a tendency to wonder about the unknown. Imagine, if you will, that you’re the proud parent of a delightful six-year old kid. It’s Christmas eve and you’ve already put her presents under the tree, and you say to her “I can’t wait for you to open this gift in the morning! It’s so cool and awesome and you’re going to love it!” And then you leave the room. What do you think she’s going to do?

Most kids would be tempted to tear into that sucker right away if they weren’t expressly told not to open the gift, or at the very least, they would ask you for a hint or something of that nature. Not knowing why something does what it does or why something is the way that it is drives us absolutely crazy, and it’s this desire to improve ourselves and understand that motivates almost all of our actions. Think about what would have happened if the parent has just said “Alright, yeah, whatever. I got you the new ipod you wanted.” and that had been the end of it. That kid wouldn’t have had all the joy of opening the box on their own and being surprised as the paper slowly but surely fell away from the container. They would have just been given an answer that satisfies them, the mystery completely eliminated.

This is the power of intrinsic motivation: this force from within that drives us to learn and grow. A person who is truly passionate about something will be completely unstoppable when it comes to their learning. Creating an environment where that passion can thrive and grow is the greatest challenge in education.

Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy

The essence of autonomy is “Yeah, I did that because I could”. Autonomy is about having the freedom to take charge of your own learning and discover on your own. When students have autonomy, they’re able to make their work their own, framing things in their own contexts and telling their own stories. A classroom that gives students autonomy is chaotic and charged. Students should be designing their own experiments and projects, working together to solve problems, and guiding their own learning process. Autonomy also allows students to utilize their own personal talents and abilities, putting their own unique spin on something that normally wouldn’t interest them. Do you have a physics student who loves music? Let them write a song about force or do a project about the energy content in different sound waves. Autonomy is about the freedom to learn about important and interesting things.

Intrinsic Motivation: Mastery

If autonomy is about freedom, then mastery is about growth. Within each of us is a desire to feel useful: to be skilled and competent. With that comes an intrinsic desire to improve ourselves and be the very best. The drive for mastery lives within each person when it comes to certain tasks, but tapping into it is a completely different challenge. First and foremost, you need to set goals. Not goals like “70 percent of the class needs to get an A on the exam”, but real goals like “Let’s see if we can explode this watermelon with a ping pong ball”. Goals should be not only attainable, but also real and tangible. Forget working with arbitrary numbers and empty bureaucracy. Make your goals problems and challenges to conquer, and never stop raising the bar to see what thing needs to happen next. Students need to constantly be cheered on, supported, and, most importantly, pushed to new heights of greatness. Does the best student in your class seem bored? Give that kid a book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and have him think about some experiments and projects that can prove the concepts discussed. No student should ever be performing at less than 100%, and if you give them the environment to grow, they won’t want to.

Intrinsic Motivation: Purpose

The icing on the intrinsic motivational cake is purpose. How many times have you ever heard a kid in class ask “When are we ever going to use this?”? A student can’t care about anything if they don’t have a reason to. The key to allowing students to have purpose in the classroom comes from grounding each situation they encounter to reality in some way. Sure, we’re learning about electromagnetic force, but why should I care? Even if you answer something like “It’s how all of our technology works.”, it won’t be real to the students unless you build a generator or launch an aluminum can into the atmosphere with a railgun. Similar to making your goals attainable and real, you also need to have an endgame for each project beyond “So you guys learn it.”. When a student’s work has purpose, it brings a whole new desire to want to make progress, to invent, and to help out the community. A great teacher can work with the school’s government and other teachers to give their students ways of working together to better their town and school system. Get your students involved in as many opportunities to do real work and make real change as possible!


The heart of intrinsic motivation is control. When your students have the control of their learning, they can be free to make it their own and bring it into reality. They have the ability to get better and succeed by merit of their own hard work and creativity. They have the ability to create meaningful, impactful, changes in the world around them, making it better. When you guide your students to discover things on their own and drive forth their own learning process, just try stopping them from blowing your expectations out of the water.



  1. Dillon,

    Thank you! I’m glad you liked my stories! Also, I agree that it’s probably for the best that I start to chop things up and edit them down a little bit more to make things more digestible. Bullet points will be a great way to do that. Thanks!

  2. Aesa,
    I love that you started your blog with a story! Using the ideas that you were about to present into an interesting narrative is great! I love that every paragraph you do almost seems to tell a story to the reader. I recommend bullet pointing parts of the larger paragraphs then tying your points together towards the end of those bullet points. All in all, I absolutely love the blog post and love that you use stories to get your ideas across!

  3. Aesa,

    I absolutely LOVED your Christmas morning analogy! It’s so accurate–we love the thrill of surprise, especially when it comes to presents. And if you’re like me, you love the thrill of GIVING the surprise; as in, knowing what it is the person is going to get, and watching their faces as they receive it. It’s this same passion that drives us in teaching–when we know the answer to a question or topic, we get the excitement of watching the students’ faces light up as they realize how it works as well! Also, your discussion of autonomy, mastery, and purpose were all very well written. All in all, a great post!

    • Thank you Naomi! I’m glad you liked the analogy! You’re absolutely right. We humans get an inherent joy that comes from discovering something new, and the way that discovery is stumbled upon is extremely important when it comes to whether or not a lasting memory is made. Kids need to discover things on their own, learning their own way, and discovering knowledge in the coolest and most memorable way possible. Ever opened an adventure gift? They’re way better, and you always remember opening them for the first time. This is what learning can be!

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