School is full of carrots and sticks intended to motivate students to behave in a certain way. For example, grades, attendance awards, detention and the honor roll are all part of a system created to get students to show up to school on time, do homework, pay attention in class, study for tests and not break school rules.
How much do these extrinsic rewards and punishments motivate you? Or, do you find yourself more motivated not by external rewards, but by something internal that makes you want to do or achieve something for its own sake? What examples can you give?
In “Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets,” Alfie Kohn writes:
The field of social psychology is sometimes accused of doing no more than ratifying common sense, so it’s worth paying attention when its findings are genuinely surprising. Case in point: the discovery that when we are rewarded for doing something, we tend to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward.
This outcome has been confirmed scores of times with all sorts of rewards and tasks, and across cultures, ages and genders. Yet many teachers, parents and bosses persist in using versions of what has been called “sugarcoated control.”
Psychologists often distinguish between intrinsic motivation (wanting to do something for its own sake) and extrinsic motivation (for example, doing something in order to snag a goody). The first is the best predictor of high-quality achievement, and it can actually be undermined by the second. Moreover, when you promise people a reward, they often perform more poorly as a result.
Mr. Kohn continues:
The best that carrots — or sticks — can do is change people’s behavior temporarily. They can never create a lasting commitment to an action or a value, and often they have exactly the opposite effect … contrary to hypothesis.
Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort and courage. Doing things to people, such as offering them a reward, is relatively undemanding for the rewarder, which may help to explain why carrots and sticks remain stubbornly popular despite decades of research demonstrating their failure.
In the case of attendance, it’s a lot easier — and much less threatening to those in positions of authority — to reward students and workers for showing up than it is to reconfigure schools and workplaces so that people are more likely to want to show up.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— Do you agree with Mr. Kohn’s premise, supported by research he cites in the Op-Ed, that carrots and sticks can never create a lasting commitment to an action or a value, and often they have exactly the opposite effect? Have you ever seen this play out in your own life, or in the lives of your friends?
— Can you think of a reward or punishment that motivated you to do something or not do something, in school or outside of school? Was the change in your behavior temporary, lasting as long as the carrot or stick was in effect? Or, do you think the extrinsic motivation (for example, the award, prize or grade) actually did make a lasting change in your commitment or values?
— What carrots and sticks exist in your school? Can you think of any that you might change or eliminate after reading this Op-Ed? Can you think of any that seem to work, and that you would want to keep? Why?
— What do you think of the penultimate paragraph in the Op-Ed: “Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort and courage. Doing things to people, such as offering them a reward, is relatively undemanding for the rewarder, which may help to explain why carrots and sticks remain stubbornly popular despite decades of research demonstrating their failure.” Do you agree? Share your thoughts.
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.