Friday, April 15, 2011

Catching the Carrot and Breaking the Stick

Discussion of education policy and reform often centers on issues of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  No doubt these are among the most important factors in education, but increasingly I realize the most important aspect of my job is motivation.  Twentieth century psychology was pretty firmly entrenched in a behaviorist view of motivation-- provide the right incentives and if needed the right punishments, to gain the desired behavioral outcomes.  We are learning today that this type of motivating works well for tasks that are simple, but for more complex and higher level cognitive tasks this behavioral model of reinforcement can actually become a detriment to performance.

Even if you've never heard of B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism doesn't ring any bells in your brain, this theory today has become common sense.  So much so, that when I teach about Skinner's operant conditioning in my AP Psychology class, students wonder why this guy was so important.  After all, he just describes the stuff we already know.  These ideas and theories have become so embedded in our popular culture that it has become counter-intuitive to suggest that "rewards and punishments" are not always the best way to motivate.

Dan Pink has led the twenty-first century charge that the operating system of motivation 2.0 is due an upgrade.  This is not a new idea, but Pink has done an excellent job of promoting and articulating the fact that while external motivation creates significant short-term but shallow gains, the power of intrinsic motivation creates life-long learning.

That is point one- Extrinsic motivation may get us short-term results, but will dissapoint in the end.

Once upon a time, we believed that motivation was primarily a drive resulting from acquiring things that we need.  At the most basic level, food and shelter, but moving forward, secondary acquistions that facilitate the acquisition of these needs.  This is still very external.  Harry Harlow in his famous "terry-cloth monkey" experiments began the psychological studies that would eventually prove that humans also have many psychological needs such as affiliation, curiosity, achievement, etc., that can motivate just as powerfully as those external survival needs.  Again, Dan Pink summarizes much of this research from the last half-century, articulating the argument that humans will strive toward outcomes such as mastery and excellence absent any traditional rewards or punishments.

That is point two- We know that humans possess many internal drives that prove to motivate us toward sustained efforts to learn, understand, and acheive.

So far, I have not said anything original.  If you are familiar with Dan Pink, psychology in general, or any number of popular writers over the last decade, you may be thinking "o.k., so what?"  Here it goes.  Individuals working outside of the classroom have become increasingly critical of our "creativity killing school systems and teachers."  They are partly correct in their criticism.  Hollywood movies portraying out-of-the-box teachers showing students how to unleash their inner potential are inspiring.  Examples of innovative charter schools allowing students to explore their own paths to learning are hopeful.  Images of children scattered about a school campus engaged in authentic learning experiences emphasize the value of hands-on discovery.

To many on the outside, the impression becomes that since all children are "learners" by nature, if the restrictive adults would just get out of the way we could experience real learning.  I learned long ago that the best lessons I've provided in the classroom would look like I'm doing no work at all, while in the worst lessons I'm active for the duration of the class.  The former requires great skill and much work, the latter may require the skill, but much less work in preparation.  Getting out of the way and letting children experience learning requires much more effort in planning and executing meaningful experiences than a plan requiring constant direction from the teacher.  In the classroom, this will look effortless, even natural.  But compare it to an athlete or performer-- they will only give the perception of executing their craft effortlessly when they have put enough effort into their preparation.

True education occurs when caring adults make the effort to prepare meaningful interactions and experiences that engage learners in exercising thier natural curiosities and tendencies.  This learning is far superior to "carrot and stick" methods of rewarding and punishing appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, but this learning also requires much more effort on the front end.  I applaud administrators, parents, and others who demand this from teachers, and also the teachers who understand this.  To the critics and politicians who seem to thrive on bashing our public school systems I would ask that you realize this type of instruction is stifled by the insistence that true performance is measured only by standardized testing.  Also, to the casual observer, recognize that quality student learning doesn't "just happen."  As natural as it may seem, usually great effort and dedication is required to nurture it to maturity.


  1. I don't think that behaviorism and external rewards are best left in the 20th century. I agree that intrinsic motivation is superior, but if a teacher exerts so much effort trying to find out what a student is interested in aren't they still trying to provide external motivation of a different kind.

    If we dismiss the benefits of rewards and punishments as ineffective and attempt to work completely from the intrinsic side, we're throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Sole reliance on this kind of motivation is bad, but we're kidding ourselves if we think we can live without it.

  2. All this head-shrinking stuff is good. Get's me thinking. It's clear in individual kids that don't quite get that they have to work(or we have to work to motivate). Some might even equate lack of motivation with lazy. Let's say they don't read the HW article and can't gain as much from the discussion in class the next day. The quizzes and tests won't be as good because they didn't study. They like doing well but haven't yet connected that the leg work is indeed necessary to do your best. Motivation?

    Let's not excuse that some of this is a conscious decision by kids to not make the right choices, they are kids after all. Their performance is less a priority than other things. So maybe they need a little more external(parents) motivation to not play the ataris and and text all day(atari still exists right?) when the intrinsic is lacking.

    It can be a challenge to find ways to motivate kids in subjects that are not their favorite that they are made to take with curriculum that is not flexible(like world history). Hard to foster curiosity in that setting. We can't forget we teach a lot more(or kids learn) than the curriculum that is tested. The importance of work ethic, problem solving, balancing time demands, working with others, self advocacy, respect, the list goes on.

    Grades motivate a lot of kids, maybe too much if you can understand that since they might care more about grades than what they learn. So anonymous is right that a balance might be best. We've asked before what should grades mean? I guess asking if grades are solely a measure of what the students knows and has learned with the curriculum. Talk of charter schools and more inventive approaches to benefit kids are welcome. But life sometimes isn't quite as flexible and we've all taught kids that didn't necessarily get good grades but we know they'll be fine in life.

    Where does teacher motivation fit in? I recall this statement "Johnny got a B in your class but only a 410 on the SOL, what gives?" Reformers I don't agree with would point to this as evidence of problems and the need for improvement. Value added models and more testing are likely the results. Obviously I became a teacher for the external motivators of money, power and respect. :)

    Since I teach mostly freshman and you mostly seniors I find it rewarding when I see one in your sr classes that has somewhere along the way picked up either the maturity or motivation to excel. I like to think we play some small role in the process. That'll motivate me more than anything.