Tag Archives: Myths

Extrinsic Rewards – Productive or Counter-Productive – Part 1

A friend and colleague contacted me recently about his son’s school’s use of extrinsic motivators. He had been thinking about rewards and motivation and how they might impede learning, and wanted to know my thoughts on the subject. He wrote, “Rewards seem like an easy thing that so many teachers gravitate to… pizza parties, special days, treats, etc…”

Actually, the issue of extrinsic motivation is a pretty complex one, and I had no quick answer for my friend (of course, my stepson says I don’t have a short answer for anything!). So I promised him that I would blog about the topic. This will be the first of several posts over the next week or so.

Let’s start with a quick review of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation and a little about why this is an involved topic.

Teachers can do many things to try to make learning more intrinsically motivating for students. Tying into student interests and goals, as well as making learning interesting are all approaches to leveraging intrinsic motivation. As you can imagine, it is probably not practical to do this for every child all the time.

When the motivation comes from outside the student, when the student is required to do something, driven by the desire to receive some reward or avoid some sort of punishment (such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval), the student is extrinsically motivated.

The use of rewards, prizes, incentives, consequences, and punishments are certainly common practice in schools. And the work people do in the real world is often regulated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. People need to learn and do things that they may not find interesting or aligned with their goals. Some of the master painters have said that they do better work when they had a commission rather than when they were just working on there own.

Take educators as an example. At conferences, I often ask how many of the participants do better work when they have a deadline and many hands go up. Also, teachers confirm that they went into teaching partly because there is something about the profession they like and enjoy (perhaps they really love the content in their discipline, or maybe they really love working with young people and want to make a difference in their lives). But they took the job also because they have bills to pay, and that there are courses or parts of courses that they teach because their principal asked them to, or the state requires them to, not because teachers necessarily wanted to or find it interesting.

Extrinsic motivation has received a lot of bad press in both the popular educational literature and research journals. There is certainly evidence that a focus on punishments and rewards can be counterproductive to learning (Kohn, 1993, 1994).

How can this is true at the same time that people are guided daily by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and incentives and consequences are in widespread use in schools? No wonder there is a lot of confusion over whether extrinsic motivation is productive or counter-productive.

The answer is actually both more complex and simpler than that. There are different kinds of extrinsic motivation and each can either improve learning or shut it down.

The concern over counter-productive extrinsic motivation is that although they may get a student to participate in classroom activities, certain types of extrinsic motivation can interfere with optimal learning. Essentially, when students perform for grades or other rewards, they no longer perceive that their learning has intrinsic value.

Coming next: the reasons to avoid rewards.


Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1994). The Risks of Rewards. ERIC digest. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Myths About The Way We Do Schooling Now

Creating educational programs and systems that work for all kids has been my work for a long time. I have grown to understand that asking educators to change how they work produces a range of very human responses:

  • Let’s go!
  • Sounds good, but how?
  • Yes, but what about this?
  • NFW!

Of course, the challenge comes from the “Yes But’s” and the “NFW’s” (“No Bleeping Way!” – yes, this is widely accepted technical jargon…). They often raise the same objections, but with different objectives. The Yes Buts honestly want to know about the objection. If you satisfactorily address their concern, they will often say, “Oh. Ok,” and work with you. With the NFWs, if you address their concern, they will respond, “Well, maybe. but what about this?” and throw up another objection. The Yes Buts’ objective is to get their concerns addressed. The NFWs’ objective is not to do anything they don’t want to. (So don’t waste a lot of time and energy on the NFWs, except perhaps to have them reflect if they are in the right career or not…)

Either way, leadership is still responsible for addressing concerns and objections raised. Remember, sometimes folks have thought of something we haven’t, or remind us that we haven’t clearly articulated some aspect of what were doing. Responding to concerns is an incredibly helpful school change tool.

Change is hard, and today, often involves learning how to teach and organize school in ways we have never experienced ourselves. The current, Industrial Age approach to schooling is a strongly reinforced paradigm. So it is no surprise that even bright, caring, skilled teaches believe myths about the current approach to schooling.

What follows are some of the things that teachers have said to me that I believe to be myths, and my response to those statements.

Since some of our students go on to the military, we need to teach them to be compliant – This one often comes up when I’m doing a workshop on motivating underachievers. A wonderful young lady and teacher, who I consider one of my daughters, is a veteran.  She served in the Army before going to college and getting her teaching degree. Our experience with the military was that they have an amazing, well designed educational system.  It all starts with Boot Camp, which does a surprisingly good job of teaching how to follow orders and take direction (even for those quite reluctant to learn the lesson).  I’m not sure th military needs our help teaching compliance.  In fact, I believe they would be much happier if we were simply better at engaging learners in general, teaching them basic skills, lots of content knowledge, and how to think and communicate.  Besides, people are better at taking direction when they are working on things that they are interested in, believe in, feel like they are contributing to, good at, and have had some choice in doing, not when those with authority are bossy…

Our schools are working just fine – Part of me understands that it looks like we are doing a good job and that schools are working when teachers look at some of the amazing successes of our easy to teach kids, or the auditorium filled with graduates each June. But I am acutely aware that whether we look at graduation rates, test scores, or the comments from employers, there are WAY too many students for whom we are not successful.  It’s not 30%, you say! It’s only 20% (or 15% or 5%)… We could debate the numbers, but how ever you slice it, that’s way too many. (And again, I don’t believe it’s the teachers, but rather that we’re trying to meet Information Age goals with Industrial Age structures.)

Life isn’t about “redo’s” – This one is just blatantly false.  Any teacher new to the profession knows you can redo the Praxis test until you pass it. If things in your life don’t work out the way you want the first time, you can go back and try again. Redo’s aren’t without consequences and always take work, but they are available. (And my wife hates it when I joke, “I’ve been married way too many times to not think life is all about do overs!” – my “current” wife, that is!). 😉

What about our Ivy League students? – I have seen no innovative approach that works for reluctant learners that has not also worked for our best and brightest.  Some honors students get upset because they have been good at the game of school and now the game is changing (but once they get beyond that, they do every bit as well as they did before).  Some (misguided) parents have been upset because other students can now succeed, not just their children. I know that Maine’s Commissioner of Education contacted more than a 100 colleges (including Ivy League colleges) to see if they would accept a standards based diploma, and all but one not only said yes, but that they were already accepting international students with standards-based diplomas.  Massabesic High School has had its first student in two decades accepted into Harvard, BECAUSE of this Maine district’s focus on teaching differently. (And REALLY! What percentage of our kids go on to the best colleges?  Are we really not going to get better at meeting the needs of our students for such a small fraction of our population?)

Let’s be thoughtful about how we respond to concerns raised.  Whether they are legitimate concerns or not, most come from the right place.  But let’s also make sure that concerns raised pass scrutiny and the “straight face” test.

It’s Your Turn:

What educational myths do you experience?