Extrinsic Motivation is Not The Enemy!


Motivation. The why behind your actions. The driving force behind who you become. As teachers, we tirelessly search for ways to motivate our students to succeed, not just in the classroom, but in life. These tricks we use are extrinsic motivators, but that’s becoming a bit of a bad word in education. Many teachers argue that extrinsic motivation has a negative effect on students. They say that too many extrinsic motivators lead to students losing intrinsic motivation and only being willing to do work for a cookie.

People, especially teachers, are incredibly passionate about motivation. I’ve seen fiery arguments, both on the digital stage and in person, regarding the evils or wonders of rewards and extrinsic motivations. Teachers take the concept of rewards to heart as a teacher’s opinion regarding this concept affects every aspect of how they run their classrooms.

I’ll be honest here. I’d never given this most thought and didn’t have an opinion  (or thought I didn’t have one)  until my school started Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS). PBIS relies heavily on rewarding positive behavior as a way to encourage students to do better. When this program rolled out, opinions began to fly, and I was forced to really evaluate my own thoughts about extrinsic motivation. Since then I’ve begun gamifying my classroom and those discussions have arisen yet again. I’ve been trying to blog about this idea for a while, but I wanted to make sure my thoughts were just right before I put this out into the universe and opened up this can of worms…here goes.

I wholeheartedly believe that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic. Obviously if a student is motivated from within they will achieve more. However, intrinsic motivation is not always a quality a student comes to me displaying. I always try to find that place of motivation within a child, but school is not really something sixth graders care about without…wait for it…extrinsic motivation. You know what motivates my students who want to achieve? Their parents. Their desire to have a certain job in the future. Their desire to have an A. Those are outside things. I’ll do you one better…I don’t think truly intrinsic motivation exists. Let that sink in a moment. Intrinsic motivation is defined as motivation based on taking pleasure in an activity rather working towards an external reward (http://www.itseducation.asia/psychology/i.htm). Ok. So this would mean that when I sit down to knit, I do so simply because I take pleasure in it, but isn’t that pleasure it’s own reward? And I love to knit, but part of that is that I love the reward of finishing a knitting project. Extrinsic motivation is defined by giftedkids.about.com as motivation that comes from outside the indivdual. This would be the typical do X get Y concept. I love teaching, but let me be perfectly clear that I would not (could not is more accurate) spend the time and effort I currently spend to teach without being paid. I’m being rewarded for what I do.

Expecting students to be intrinsically motivated in every subject, all the time, is just plain unfair. I always made A’s in math, but I will never want to do math for the pleasure of it. It’s important to understand that a student’s likes and dislikes will affect their motivation in your classroom. Avoiding extrinsic motivators in your classroom will not inspire an unmotivated student to do well. However, I believe extrinsic motivation can inspire intrinsic motivation in a child if handled correctly. I see students every year who walk in my door as 6th graders who have never seen success in a classroom. They are not motivated to be successful and they aren’t even sure what that might look like. Typically, these students have some gaps in their learning and they struggle. This is where extrinsic motivation matters. With the right rewards aligned to effort and resilience, this child begins to feel success. They may be making D’s, but they’re being rewarded for their effort, so they continue to push. If the extrinsic rewards can push this child to have some classroom successes, they’ll go into other classrooms with more motivation to try.

We, as adults, respond to extrinsic motivators ourselves every single day. I had lunch at Panera Bread today and I had my rewards card scanned when I ordered. I also regularly use rewards cards at Sheetz and Starbucks, as well. If I am one breakfast sandwich away from earning a free one, I’ll probably head to Sheetz for breakfast that morning. I went to Starbucks exclusively for coffee for a while so that I could become a gold level member and get free refills in store (totally worth it!). I play trivia every Tuesday with a group of friends and we earn badges and points each week when we play. The grocery store where you shop probably has a card that earns you extra discounts. Say hello to extrinsic motivation in your everyday life.

Am I saying you have to hand kids a piece of candy every time they get something right? No. A huge resounding NO! But you can find ways to reward students for being excellent.Something as simple as giving verbal praise when earned (not all the time! Please stop encouraging mediocrity!) can encourage a student to repeat that behavior. In my gamified classroom students earn experience points (XP) for a variety of excellent behavior (full details of my “game” coming soon!) and collecting XP causes them to grow in levels, earning additional privileges with each level. It’s hard to level up and students have to really invest in the game in order to succeed, which equates to being successful in my classroom. But what’s magical here are the habits being created by the students, especially the students who have never been good at school. Sure, they’re studying and completing their assignments for a reward, but please understand that they’re studying and completing their assignments!!! They’re finding success, feeling rewarded, and I hope carrying that feeling and those habits into 7th grade and eventually becoming intrinsic as they chose, on their own, to seek success.

Intrinsic motivation is not magic. Don’t be afraid to reward your students for doing well. You know how wonderful it feels to get rewarded! Someone observes you teaching and compliments your style or lesson. A co-worker sticks a note with a piece of candy on it in your box thanking you for your help. Sure you weren’t seeking it, but isn’t it nice? Odds are it might encourage you to do it again. There’s a fine line between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Don’t be afraid to step on it.


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