Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stepping in it Again (Rewards Redux)

     The discussions around rewards and motivation have produced numerous perspectives, blogs, books, and guest columns over the years I've been in education. It's a topic that can be polarizing for those who remain rigid in their views or enlightening for those who value the insights shared by colleagues. I'd like to think I fall in the latter category as I know my views on this topic continue to evolve. I'm not the same teacher I was 29 years ago; I've learned from the brilliant educators who have gone before me, beside me, and after me. Having said that, it's also important for me to state that I'm not prepared to firmly plant both feet in the camp of those who would advocate for an absolute absence of any extrinsic motivators. And here's why: I firmly believe that extrinsic motivation is a pre-cursor to intrinsic motivation for some of our students. Two examples, one quite recent and one from a lifetime ago, illustrate why I have held on to this belief. 

     A recent visit to the DSBN Academy (see my recent post on this school at and conversations with the students resulted in a student quite honestly stating to me and his peers that he hates school. I was not surprised given his experiences up to that point - a lack of success and a greater lack of engagement with future prospects looking quite dim. He is now in a new environment where the focus is on what he is capable of doing going forward with a group of adults committed to helping him achieve his potential. As I debriefed with the staff afterwards, we could all see that this youngster would need some overt efforts and some extrinsic motivators before he starts to get the sense of experiencing success and recognizing his talents. This example reinforced for me two key points; first, not all kids start with the same skill set or tool box and second, and even more troubling to me, is that we sometimes magnify the differences through ineffective practice or a deterministic view that not all will be successful.

     The second example is a personal one. I grew up a child of poverty and abuse who followed five older siblings to school. School success was not a priority for any of them and the expectations for the sixth Hierck child were not high. It was not likely, nor fair to my teachers, that I was going to be intrinsically motivated or do the right things for the right reasons. In fact I probably was motivated but my motivation was towards those things that would be viewed as anti-social, and that I was well versed in. I can recall teachers who I simply wore down and pushed to the point where they had little energy left to salvage anything for me. It's not that I was unaware of the right things or didn't see what success created for my peers. I just didn't see how that was a possibility for me nor did I have any examples at home that would have made it seem attainable. The details of the changes that occurred for me are beyond the space a blog permits but one of the key pieces for me came in the form of extrinsic motivators. When my family moved across the country and I arrived in a new school, opportunities appeared that allowed for a significant change to happen. One of the first forms of extrinsic motivation came in the form of math contests that spurred a confidence level in me that allowed me to view things differently. I will remain forever grateful to Mr. Huberman for identifying a skill in me and setting up a forum that provided acknowledgement for that skill. I had not had much experience with that feeling and built on that experience. It was one of numerous external pieces that shaped a new direction for me. As is the case with many of our students, I didn't need the external forever but it was the kick-start that allowed for change to occur. This view is summarized in our recently released book:

“Over time, the goal is to move to more intrinsic and less extrinsic 
reinforcement, when students make good decisions for the sake 
of satisfaction it instills instead of the rewards it brings."

     While I know that my practice has been enriched and improved over time, I also know that some things I did early in my career have stood the test of time. One of these that also fits my notion of external motivators is an activity I called post cards from school. Each student in my Science class was given a 4 x 6 index card and asked to draw a picture on the unlined side of any science related theme. I used this as an early indicator of what appealed to them in the course. I collected the cards and on the right half of the lined side I wrote the parent/guardian name and home address. These then became post cards that I sent home at some point during the school year. Post cards always contain only positive messages and that was the challenge for me. I needed some authentic, descriptive feedback that I could share about each student. This could have been a challenge for my struggling learners but instead focussed my attention on looking for the good news. On some levels it was a bigger challenge to create a message for my most able learners that went beyond some of the standard comments they have received throughout their school careers (a pleasure to have in class, a commendable student, outstanding achievement, excellent work) and also carried some meaning. The impact of this extrinsic reward was palpable throughout the school year as both students and parents appreciated the recognition.

     Moving forward, I remain open to my thinking continuing to evolve around this topic. I do want to avoid the creation of a dependency on reward before the exhibition of expected/accepted behaviors. I also want to remain committed to helping those students who aren't connected to their intrinsic motivators make those connections. Even if it takes a little external magic to make it so.


  1. Tom,

    When I first started reading up on motivation, I dichotomized it as intrinsic vs extrinsic with intrinsic being effective and extrinsic being ineffective and often taking away from intrinsic. As I read more, I found Deci and Ryan's Self-determination Theory and saw how they had motivation as more of a continuum as they broke down extrinsic motivation into 4 different areas (with the least autonomous/most controlling being the least effective). The researchers do make it very clear that people do not move through the continuum as they develop (ie. they do not internalize extrinsic motivators). Having said this, we need to be careful that we do not add an extrinsic controlling motivator as it can actually take away from the intrinsic motivation. People can read more here:

    The key for me is to avoid controlling motivators like prizes and punishments... a motivator such as praise (more importantly feedback) is something that I believe is essential for development as we all need coaches throughout life (although I really admire the work of Dweck on focusing on effort-praise rather than ability-praise).. The challenge is for us to develop the internal regulation so we need not rely on praise, etc from others.

    I think for the example of the math contest is that you felt you had the autonomy to get involved in that so although it was an extrinsic motivator, you saw the intrinsic benefit of this. It is a good example of how an extrinsic can be autonomous. (I fear, though, about some students who are forced into competition and they continue on their losing streak)

    So rather than rambling on here, I think that you have given 2 examples of extrinsic motivation in which their is perceived autonomy. It is the extrinsic motivation in which people feel controlled ("if.. then" rewards/punishment) that I strongly believe are ineffective. So, it is all about autonomy. :-)

    Thanks for continuing to make me reflect!

  2. Thanks Chris. What I love about the topic is that there are so many views that can be considered. There is enough research to line up evenly on either side of the conversation and that's the point I am trying to make. Just as educators talk about personalizing learning, it's equally important to consider what personally motivates our students. It's incorrect to assume that all motivators are the same for all people or can neatly be categorized as extrinsic or intrinsic. Dr. Reiss (Ohio State) argues that intrinsic motivation does not exist ( for example. I'm not of that mindset but do know that different things motivate me than might motivate my neighbor. I know in a family of eight siblings we all had different triggers. It wasn't really about autonomy as I always had that and simply exercised a different choice. In essence, the "prize" got me to the event and the "internal accomplishment" kept me hungry for more.