I have been obsessed with motivation for a LONG time. I have often wondered why understanding motivation isn’t something that is taught in Teacher Education programs and basically the class that teaches every single person the most important things to make you a thinking and self sufficient human being! I have my conspiracy theories on why this isn’t a more widely understood topic. I started the following blog 3 years ago and have had it archived since it was written. This morning while scrolling through Facebook, I came across an article discussing the novel idea of fostering intrinsic motivation in students and got extra giddy when I saw that the article referenced Daniel Pink and his work on motivation. When I read the comments from educators who obviously thought that their OPINION about motivation was a viable counter argument to all of the research that has been done on the topic, I just couldn’t help but put my thoughts out there. The following was written almost exactly 3 years ago and I stand by these words more than ever!
September 7, 2014: There is a growing trend in our society, especially in the education world, of using external rewards to motivate people to do what they are supposed to. Teachers have stock piled treasure chests, prize baskets, and the like, with rewards for students to do a myriad of things. They get rewarded for coming to school on time, following rules, completing assignments, reading books, or participating in class. We see parents bargaining with their children and promising outlandish rewards for doing what is expected of them in various areas of their life.
Using tangible rewards to motivate someone to do something that is expected of them is called extrinsic motivation. The alternate to that would be intrinsic motivation. When you do something because you enjoy it, it is the right thing to do, or because it is what is expected, without the promise of a payoff, you are exhibiting intrinsic motivation.
When we dangle a carrot in front of our students, the initial effect is that you have a higher percentage of participation. We think, “This is great! I got everyone to do what I asked!” The reward produced the desired outcome. What’s the harm in that, right? Thinking of all of the negative effects that extrinsic motivators can cause is enough to make my eyeballs pop out of my head!
When you give a reward for a task, you are basically saying that doing said task isn’t beneficial in it’s own right or assume that the person you are asking to complete the task couldn’t possibly see the benefit, so they should do it for a prize. If you constantly reinforce external motivation, you are depleting any intrinsic motivation that the individual might have. The effect of the reward lessens over time. So eventually, you will be right back where you started, and will either have to up the ante or cut your losses.
Putting a price tag on expected behavior, often puts too much pressure on a child, and they crumble under the pressure. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen parents make outlandish deals with their child to behave a certain way, and often times, the situation got worse instead of better. We have to explain to children why the task is desirable and acknowledge progress made toward reaching that goal. Expecting it to happen over night or bribing just isn’t realistic!
I am so thankful that I grew up in a time that teachers weren’t paying students to “learn” and in a home that couldn’t afford to offer big prizes for what was expected. I had teachers who showed that they cared about me. I had a mom who took me to the library so she could share her love of reading with me. Was I a perfect student? NOPE!! On my report card, I had that little “self control” box checked EVERY quarter, EVERY year.
We have to respect our students enough to show them the importance of learning and stop undermining their intrinsic motivation. We sit and complain about Millennials expecting something for nothing, but perhaps it is time we step back and look honestly at what got them to this point. I am pretty sure that the adults who were responsible for raising them and educating them may be to blame for this mentality. Our country is doomed to continue cranking out self-absorbed citizens who are far too willing to pull out the victim card when the going gets tough, if we don’t stop muddying the waters in the classroom. Let’s try respecting our children enough to explain WHY learning is important and empower them to take ownership of their education.