Lauri Järvilehto, on motivation and learning

Lauri Järvilehto, on motivation and learning

We had the opportunity to interview Lauri Järvilehto, Professor of Practice at Aalto University. We asked him about his views on life planning and its importance to society. Lauri researches topics such as motivation and working life, he is also an entrepreneur and consultant who helps organisations to develop their culture.

First, a few quotes from Lauri’s previous blogs that set the stage for our conversation:

“As a result of the new wave of machine learning, Finland is faced with perhaps the most radical transformation of work in human history. It is estimated that 9% or even 47% of current occupations will be eliminated due to automation and machine learning technology. To keep up with the global competition, we need a bold investment in new learning, employment and innovation policies. In the face of accelerating global change, our approach to work and learning needs to be updated.”

“But the problem (in working life) is that if you don’t develop the learning and competence side, before long you can be productive in the wrong things. It is essential to outline what are the key issues for the organisation that need to be developed and then enable that development.”

“To create space, time, and freedom for people to develop their own skills and develop new ones in a self-directed and intrinsically motivated way (in addition to productive work). Let us create opportunities.”

Based on these statements, we started the discussion by asking whether freedom is a necessary part of creating motivation, which then leads to learning and creativity?

Freedom is one factor in motivation, which consists of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

 Extrinsic motivation comes from doing something to achieve things separate from the act, such as reading a book to progress in university studies. Intrinsic motivation drives one to read a book for its own sake.

 In exploring intrinsic motivation, I use the self-determination theory, where the factors, in addition to freedom, are a sense of achievement and competence from the work done, and a sense of community, through which we feel the work done is valued and affects other people.

The motivational factors can interact, for example, by increasing freedom, playfulness and experimentation increase, leading to learning new things and developing competencies and abilities. On the other hand, if the employee is given clear guidance, this can also lead to the full use of one’s abilities and a state of flow. At best, a good flow leads to success, responsibility, accountability, freedom and confidence, and enables learning new things.

Today, the media is talking about the well-being of both students and employees. Do you think that more freedom in defining your work and studies is an important element of resilience? Where is more freedom needed?

More freedom to reflect on one’s own life and interests is needed in schools. In Finland, there is perhaps a generalised perception that students and workers are seen in the same light as top athletes and their performance-oriented counterparts. These top performers have multiple degrees, and responsibilities, speak many languages and climb high in the world of work. This is a badly misconceived notion, especially when applied to all situations in life. Even top performers typically seek out freely their own topics interests and generally pursue a wide range of sports before finding the one they are most passionate about. Take ice hockey player Teemu Selänne, for example, who played three different sports as a youngster before choosing to focus on hockey.

A similar story can be found with Roger Federer, and even people like Charles Darwin and Vincent Van Gogh, who tried several career paths in their lives “failing” before manifesting their own particular talents. More in a book Range, by David Epstein.

But a top performer is just one type of person among many, and these high achievers are very aware of what they want to invest in. But society cannot be built on the basis of all the people building their lives on excellence, and certainly not on the basis of everyone knowing what they want to be excellent about already in high school. All people, regardless of their professional ambition, have a role to play in society and should have the opportunity to get along in education. The solution to the problem is to find the right relationship between motivation, life situation and type of person.

Finland could put more emphasis on measuring individual learning progress rather than comparing people with their peers. In this way, performance-oriented people do not “stream roll” others in assessments, but everyone can compete against themselves. This is the case in Montessori education, where children also have more freedom to explore different topics, find their own interests and deepen their knowledge of those. Lauri’s own children are in a Montessori school. The trend towards this model is already in the new basic education curriculum, but there is a long way to go as traditions live on and teacher training changes more slowly than the curriculum.

Enduring the life of students and also those in the world of work require motivation. The biggest problem comes in situations where a person is expected or expects themselves to perform at their best when motivation is lacking. So it is important to understand when to keep the mind in an exploratory and experimental mode, settling for basic performance and, once a meaningful goal is found, switching to stronger performance. Society should support this varying motivation to perform. I wrote an article about it, in which I proposed the career wave model (FIN) as a solution. Having found inspiration, a person can pursue a career at any stage of life and society should provide a clear path to develop competencies to the required level. In this way, motivation and education meet and learning is effective. The missing competencies required may also be relatively small and thus acquiring a full degree is not meaningful, but rather course-based learning solutions are preferable.

How do you think students in Finland are taught to find their own motivation and thus plan their studies and careers?

We do not have a national structured system for this and therefore projects, courses and exercises are left to individual teachers and other actors. Study guidance is the closest equivalent, but the time spent on it is small compared to the time spent on subject studies, and even that time is largely spent on developing technical study skills. 

At Aalto University, we have Esa Saarinen to spark ideas through philosophy (FIN), we have a Good Life Engine course running and I run the Thinking Tools course myself. When we set up the company Philosophy Academy, we ran courses like this at the University of Helsinki and Aalto. At Aalto, we are in a good position because here personal impact and its development are part of our strategy, but there is still a lot to do. There are many good frameworks for action but they are not yet systematically used in our society.

What is the price tag for Finland if people study without intrinsic motivation?

I cannot calculate such a price tag. You could always say that half of the time put into learning is lost if you are not interested in the subject. We are doing relatively well in Finland, but I hope that we will not be under the illusion that we do not need to develop anything further. I think we should invest even more in building people’s personal education and career paths and helping people to find their inner motivation. We have an opportunity to show the whole world leadership in this area.