This is the fourth post in a series on Extrinsic Motivation. I ended the last suggesting that there are both productive and counterproductive extrinsic motivators. It would certainly help to explain the disparity between domains where there seems to be evidence they work (such as the right kind of token economy system for improving classroom behavior) and the strong rally against the use of punishments and rewards, such as those from Alfie Kohn. Rather than struggling to decide who is right, are extrinsic motivators good or bad, the much better question to ask is what kinds of extrinsic motivators are good (and in what conditions) and which kinds are bad?
Alfie Kohn is right about the kinds of punishments and rewards he writes about. Not only is he writing about only one kind of extrinsic motivation, he is writing about one specific kind of reward: the bribery reward. Those are the kinds of rewards where you promise students something if they do something in return, such as offering a pizza party for anyone who gets an A on a test. But recall that the research suggests that even if such a move generates A’s on the test, it probably won’t generate long-term learning. Students won’t remember it three week later, or they won’t be able to apply it to other projects or work. And this certainly goes against the goals of education.
But where bribery rewards do not work, random rewards do indeed seem to be powerful. Where it is counterproductive to declare before the test that there will be an ice cream party for all who do well on it, it is fine to occasionally say, “You guys did so awesome on yesterday’s test we’re going to have an ice cream party today!”
This differs from a bribery reward, because the students didn’t know the reward would be coming. It was unexpected. Praise works under similar conditions. Praise is technically a reward but works very well when it is offered at random (unpredictable) times, and is spontaneous, and connected directly to the work students are doing. Rewards that are unanticipated and random have a very high impact.
But keep in mind that even if you never use words to “promise” an incentive, your behavior can turn a random reward into a bribery reward. If over the next three tests, you show a movie, or have a pizza party, or do what ever, your students will start to expect some sort of prize for doing well. You will have turned your good deed into a bribery reward by setting a pattern that does promise the reward. It’s important to remember that random does mean random and that you avoid establishing a pattern of expectation.
So, effective use of extrinsic motivation means that educators must avoiding bribery rewards.
Even though we do learn when motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically, that is not license to rely too heavily on extrinsic motivations or to misuse extrinsic motivations. Alfie Kohn reports on one kind of punishments and rewards: one that that shuts down learning. But not only are random rewards productive, but deeper research shows that there is another kind of extrinsic motivation that supports learning (which I’ll address in my next post in the series!).