Intrinsic motivation, also referred to as engagement, takes place when students learn because they want to, because they see the importance of learning for their own personal growth as human beings. An intrinsically motivated student leams out of curiosity and love for learning, without looking for external rewards.

Humans are naturally curious animals. Children want to learn and will learn if given the freedom to pursue their interests naturally without the constraints of a system of punishments and rewards (Holt, 1995).

Children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; they learn best when they are happy, involved, and interested in what they are doing; they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened. (Holt, 1995)

This view of learning is supported by neuroscience studies that argue that the search for meaning is innate in human beings and in other animals. For example, rats that were offered a cage-free environment, full of challenging obstacles, objects to play with, and the presence of other rats demonstrated an increase in the size of the cerebral cortex when compared to rats which were isolated in cages with regimented tasks and in a punishment-reward structure similar to the ones used in higher education (Diamond et al., 1964).

So, if children are bom with a rich capacity to leant, a passion for learning, and an ardent desire to experiment, how come when they come to law school and university criminal justice programs they do not seem intrinsically motivated to learn? What happens to those innate capacities? The answer is simple. Formal education happens. Years of schooling in a carrot-and-stick system and a society that emphasizes competition slowly kill this innate curiosity. Thus, intrinsic motivation cannot be taken for granted in the law school and university settings. It needs to be created, constantly nurtured, and permanently sustained.

Daniel Pink, a Yale Law School-educated author and business guru, argues that intrinsic motivation requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy implies self-directing one’s learning process and having freedom over every element and step of this process. Students need to have autonomy over what they learn, how they learn, when they leant, and with whom they learn (Pink, 2009). Erin Brockovich learned to do legal research for a complex environmental law case alone. She chose when, where, and who to work with. Nobody ever told her that she had to legal research or how to do it. Mastery is the mental attitude that leads you to work hard with determination and perseverance to become better at what you leam, knowing folly well that mastery, like perfection, is an unattainable goal. Erm Brockovich understands the nuances of complex litigation like very few legal professionals. Still, she always feels that she has to keep improving and keeps on learning in a utopian quest toward mastery and perfection. Purpose is the desire to leam something because learning it is connected to a cause that transcends you. You leam because you feel that you are contributing to a larger cause that will bring benefits to others, such as your community, your family, people in need, the arts, the sciences, or society in general. Erin Brokovich conducts her investigation to help the residents of a community who face serious diseases caused by a gas and electric plant’s use of dangerous chemicals. For Pink (2009), the achievement of deep learning lies in “our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution.” At law school and university, we need to create the conditions for students to rediscover and unleash their innate motivation to be curious and leam.


Popular culture stories are very powerful resources to engage students and foster their intrinsic motivation. Popular culture stories in the classroom act as attention mechanisms, that is to say, devices that foster synchronization of senses with the mind. Students are continually exposed to myriad external stimuli, which compete for their attention even when they are sitting in their higher education classrooms: a fight with their boyfriends or girlfriends the previous night, family responsibilities, friends’ recommendations, assignments for other courses, a sports game, gossip, small conversation, and even background noise. The brain can only make one deep-level connection at a time. Multitasking does not exist in the deeplearning process. In other words, students need to focus on the input stoiy alone when grappling with the problem or question embedded in the input stoiy.

There are many factors that determine whether students would choose one issue, if any, over another to give it their deep attention. These factors affecting the capability of stimuli to enter students’ inner world are both internal and external. External aspects of the stimulus have to do with the learner’s needs, background, experiences, and personal circumstances. They are external because stimulus receptivity does not entirely depend on the stimulus itself but on circumstances and factors that are outside the stimulus, such as those inside the students’ minds, hi some cases, external aspects of the stimulus are more difficult to control in the law school or criminal justice classroom. As a way of illustration, if a student has broken up a long-term relationship with her fiancé, the student will probably not be very interested in discussing how to do a sentencing report or how to help a victim prepare a victim impact statement. But, in other situations where external stimuli are not veiy powerfill, pressing, or stressfill, choosing stimuli that are closer to students’ backgrounds and interests is more likely to stimulate students to want to interact with those stimuli than if you choose stimulus that is too detached from students’ lives.

Internal aspects of the stimulus have to do with the intrinsic qualities of stimuli. These include stimuli that are enjoyable, interesting, intriguing, beautiful, challenging, and captivating (Bain, 2004). Teachers are more likely to control internal aspects of stimuli, as they can choose the problems, questions, or situations embedded in the input stoiy.

Popular culture texts, when carefully selected to relate to students’ backgrounds, are very powerfill stimuli. Popular culture texts offer innumerable stories that naturally engage students. Most of these texts are produced by professionals that are experts in the art of telling stories and entertaming. Some of these texts, particularly motion pictures, TV shows, and commercial songs, are works produced with veiy high budgets and plenty of resources. They offer plots with all possible settings, characters, and situations. These texts speak in a language that learners, who are immersed in a visually—and technologically—oriented culture, are already familiar with. Most students know some of these texts; and they are already motivated to watch, read, or listen to them. Some may even be big fans of these stories, their characters, or the actors who portray them. And some students may already be hooked to these popular culture works. So, employing popular culture texts, such as TV shows, songs, motion pictures, and novels, offers a unique opportunity to motivate the activation of students’ existing knowledge structure and their engagement in the deep-leaming process. Popular culture stories are intrinsically enjoyable because they pennit “to see, in safety, presented through simple words or flat images, what could produce anxiety or dangerous desire. [...] At the other end of the chain, we can see [...] in the ‘reproductions’ of these easily managed, scaled-down models, a safe and quick way to observe the productive mechanism of human events” (Ubersfeld, 1982).

Additionally, popular culture has a subversive, irrational nature. It breaks rules and exceeds boundaries. It is politically incorrect. It is essentially transgressive (Duncum, 2009). “The characteristic feeling accompanying transgression is one of intense pleasure (at the exceeding of boundaries) and of intense anguish (at the full realization of the force of those boundaries)” (Miller, 1986). This feeling of pleasure clashes with the rationality and formality associated with higher education (Duncum, 2009). So, students that interact with popular culture stories in class experience a transgressive pleasure that motivates them to engage with the problems, situations, and questions embedded in these stories.

What’s more, many students view themselves and think about their world through popular culture stories (Giroux and Simon, 1988). They spend horns watching television, listening to music, reading comics, surfing the web, watching commercials, reading books, and reading magazines. Popular culture is part of their daily lives. Popular culture stories, with their plots, themes, characters, settings, conflicts, music, and esthetics, constitute instruments that students already use to think (some quite critically, and other less so) about themselves and their relations to the outside world. So, using these instruments in class creates a familiar environment and a sense of belonging. This, in turn, contributes to the awakening of intrinsic motivation that facilitates students’ immersion in the deep-leaming process (Lambert et al., 2013).

For these reasons, media texts, particularly segments from films, music clips, and inspirational videos, have long been used to motivate sports athletes. For example, in the 2008-2009 season. Pep Guardiola, then a young coach with no experience whatsoever in any first division club and with only a one-year stmt in third division, was appointed to manage Barcelona’s senior team—one of the world’s powerhouses in soccer. Guardiola’s Barcelona, aided by a spectacular Lionel Messi, played brilliant soccer and won every competition they participated in during that season. The most important one was the Champions League. Before the Champions League final in Rome in 2009, Pep Guardiola showed his team a film with scenes from Ridley Scot’s Gladiator (2000) and scenes with the landmarks of the 2008-2009 season that was culminating with the final match against Manchester United. While the Barcelona team was coming out of the locker room to the pitch, Andrea Bocelli sang II Gladiatore from the film’s soundtrack. Barcelona ended up winning the game with an impressive 2-0 victoiy, which is regarded as one of the best games in soccer history. Guardiola repeated this procedure before other important games in subsequent seasons. In 2010, before another Champions League game, Guardiola showed his players Clint Eastwood's Invictus (2009) in its entirety. These popular culture texts gave players extra motivation; they lit fire in them to go out and do their best in the field.

Popular culture texts are increasingly being used in business contexts for the same motivational purposes. There is a long line of research that shows that media texts can be effective instruments to intrinsically motivate people (McNutt & Wright, 1995).

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