Gold Star Junkies

By David Ruenzel — February 01, 2000 21 min read

When I taught English at a small Wisconsin high school, the principal arranged a summit every month or so between the teachers and parents of a struggling student. Compelled to attend, young Bethany generally looked quite dyspeptic while we adults formulated a plan to get her back to work. In retrospect, I think our best approach would have been to schedule more meetings for the poor student. A teenager might become a National Merit Scholar to avoid such a fate. Instead, we agreed to the usual solutions: Bethany would study at least two hours each night in a clean, well-lighted room, undisturbed by phone calls or the television. Invariably, we also developed a check and double-check system—parent and teacher signatures were required—to verify that assignments were completed each and every day.

Regardless of the precise mechanics of these schemes, they were usually predicated upon rewards and punishments. Many of the school’s parents were affluent and philistine in equal measure, and they didn’t hesitate to guarantee Bethany a ski trip or sailboat jaunt for a B average. Continued poor performance, on the other hand, was to be punished, often with a “grounding” that just might, the parents liked to imply, last forever.

Though the school counselor encouraged such plans and parents enthusiastically agreed to them, none seemed to work. Threats and admonitions were to no avail. If anything, our coaxing had the opposite effect, transforming mere deadbeats into conscientious objectors who refused to open a book.

And so I came to believe that rewards and punishments devised by parents and school officials had more to do with adult chest-beating than true efficacy. My insights, I later discovered, were hardly original. A near consensus on the limits of extrinsic motivation had emerged from scholarly research done in the 1970s and ‘80s: Rewards and punishments are not only ineffective at motivating students—and adults, for that matter—but are in fact counterproductive. Students punished for misbehavior—say, made to stand in a corner for hitting another child—are likely to become covertly disobedient. Students rewarded for good work—say, given candy or gold stars for a clever science project—are more likely to lose interest in the very activity for which they were rewarded.

The behaviorist theory—that people learn only when “good” and “bad” behavior is reinforced by rewards and punishments—seems to be plain wrong. Oddly enough, little of the research on the supposed ills of blatantly behavioristic practices reached classroom teachers; for the most part, it was marooned in psychology departments. In 1994, progressive education guru and gadfly Alfie Kohn helped the cause with the publication of Punished by Rewards, which was both a synthesis of the research and an attack on behavioristically oriented educators. Nevertheless, Kohn and other critics have managed to do little except preach to the converted. Public schools today, perhaps more than ever, are well-established laboratories for assertive discipline schemes and the like.

To a certain extent, teachers can hardly be blamed for their embrace of behaviorism. After all, they are now working in an educational climate suffused—some would say bombarded—with rewards and punishments. In state after state, the chief accountability tool is a standardized test that promises tough consequences for both students and teachers. In Chicago, for instance, schoolchildren who fail to attain a specified benchmark on a basic-skills exam are “punished” with retention—a policy that has been praised by President Clinton. Many states, such as California and Massachusetts, plan to deny diplomas to high school students who cannot pass a graduation exam.

Increasingly, these tests have become the key measure of a teacher’s performance. In some states, North Carolina among them, teachers collect bonuses when scores go up; in other states, such as Florida, schools where kids score poorly are placed on a “list of shame"—a scarlet letter of sorts designed to humiliate principals and teachers. In any case, teachers have rarely had so much motivation for running a tight ship, for using tokens and demerits to keep wayward students on task.

Few studies on the deleterious effects of rewards have been more influential than Mark Lepper’s 1973 Magic Marker study. Lepper, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of The Hidden Costs of Rewards of rewards systems. As critics have noted, it seems gratuitous to provide someone incentive to do what they already enjoy; in the parlance of behavioral studies, it’s a case of “overjustification.” Rewarding children who draw with markers, after all, is like rewarding kids with ice cream sundaes for watching television.

Still, the Magic Marker study serves as a cautionary tale for teachers who are gold-star addicts. And it is only one of many studies that calls into question the use of incentives.

One of the earliest and most salient studies was done by a young psychologist named Edward Deci. While a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1960s, Deci began to question the behaviorist psychology inspired by B.F. Skinner’s insistence that behavior is shaped by its consequences. This, Deci believed, couldn’t be right; young children, after all, don’t have to be coerced to explore and manipulate objects—they are intrinsically motivated to learn.

Deci’s skepticism about the reigning behaviorist orthodoxy ran deep. In his 1994 book Why We Do What We Do, he recalled a moment in 1969 when he had “the fleeting—and surely blasphemous—thought that maybe all the rewards, rules, and regimentation that were so widely used to motivate schoolchildren were themselves the villains, promoting not an excited state of learning but a sad state of apathy.”

To test his theory, Deci constructed a simple experiment. He asked college students to solve a series of puzzles, each of which could be assembled into hundreds of patterns. One group of students was paid a dollar for each puzzle solved, while the other group received no reward.

As the experiment unfolded, Deci realized that the latter group of students continued to tinker with the puzzles even after the experiment officially ended—they were intrigued with the task itself. The students who received payment, meanwhile, stopped working at the earliest possible moment, preferring to daydream or page through magazines.

“Stop the pay, and stop the play,” is how Deci summarized his findings. “Introducing monetary rewards seems to have made students dependent on these rewards, shifting their view from the puzzle as a satisfying activity in its own right to an activity that is instrumental for obtaining rewards.”

I recently asked Deci, now a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and director of its human motivation program, if he still sees rewards and reinforcements as villains. “Yes, I still do believe that,” he replied without hesitation. “Too often, we initiate children’s behavior on one hand and tell them they’re incompetent on the other.”

As Deci explained it, children and adults alike are likely to lose interest in activities imposed on them. Under systems of rewards and punishments, people lose their sense of ownership of a task, and when people feel controlled by others, they perform dutifully at best, indifferently at worst. A perfect example: Many states now require minimum-competency tests for grade promotion and/or high school graduation. Deci’s theory suggests that students compelled to take such tests are likely to do the minimum—and little more.

Deci obviously didn’t like anything having to do with rewards systems, including award assemblies—"ghastly” he called them. And so I could predict his reaction to a controversy regarding a rewards policy at a middle school in Half Moon Bay, California. But I told him anyway.

Several years ago, the middle school, in an attempt to curb escalating discipline problems, began rewarding well-behaved kids with periodic assemblies. The assemblies were both educational and entertaining: Students watched live bird performances, scientific experiments with fire, and the like. The school also handed out a $5 bill and food certificates on Fridays to a randomly selected student with perfect attendance and good behavior.

It was the second example for which Deci reserved most of his scorn. “Nauseating,” he said, as if he had just come across cockroaches in the kitchen sink. “Think of the message, the mind-set, they’re trying to reinforce. The notion that kids should go to school to get a $5 bill would be laughable were it not so twisted. And, as far as the assembly situation is concerned, I would find out what’s going on with those kids not attending—why they’re not more involved in the learning process.”

I had recently gone to a school board meeting in Half Moon Bay at which the award policies were fervently defended by parents. This surprised me, I told Deci. Half Moon Bay is a liberal, Northern Californian community. Yet, with the exception of two mothers who were threatening to sue over the assemblies—they saw them as a form of discrimination, pointing to the fact that boys and Latinos were invited to attend less frequently than girls and whites—everyone else regarded the rewards as “positive motivational reinforcement.”

“This is nothing that touches on the issue of liberalism,” Deci said. “For a lot of well-to-do professionals, rewards are an element of their own obsession with achievement. They may all belong to the Sierra Club, but their obsession with success blinds them to the potential problems with rewards.” Though most of the extrinsic motivation research has focused on kids and learning, it’s clear that rewards and punishments influence teachers and teaching, as well. According to Deci and other researchers, educators react to the carrot-and-stick approach much the same way as students do, losing interest in work that would otherwise be inherently satisfying. That portends trouble for the standards and accountability systems being fashioned today.

“The more we focus on teachers getting students to perform up to standards—and that’s exactly what we’re doing now—the worse they’ll do as teachers,” Deci claimed. “They’ll talk more, coerce more. These are destructive behaviors, but they’re what some people think make a good teacher.”

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, a former student of Mark Lepper’s who has devoted a long and prominent career to studying the relationship between motivation and creativity, cites a 1975 study that serves as a kind of object lesson about the impact of rewards on teaching. A number of 5th and 6th grade girls were asked to teach a task to 1st and 2nd grade girls. Some tutors were promised a free movie ticket if their charges learned well; the others were promised nothing. Amabile summarized the results in her 1996 text, Creativity in Context: “The rewarded tutors held sessions that were high- pressured and businesslike, while the nonrewarded tutors held sessions that were relaxed yet highly efficient....Moreover, the rewarded sessions were marked by more demands from the tutors, more negative evaluative statements by the tutors, less laughter, and poorer learning by the learners.”

In 1982, Deci and his longtime colleague, Richard Ryan, conducted a similar study that has implications for today’s standards-driven reform movement. They had two groups of teachers instruct students how to solve an identical set of problems. One group was told, “Remember, it is your responsibility as a teacher to make sure students perform up to high standards.”

Apparently, that little caveat was all it took to corrupt that group’s performance. Those teachers who had been reminded of their “responsibility” spent twice as much time talking during the teaching session as the others. They also made three times as many directives and three times as many controlling statements, such as “should” and “must.”

Similar results have been attained from experiments in which students have done everything from write haiku to compose news headlines. The point is this: Rewards seem to undermine thoughtful, creative classroom practice.

Despite such damning research, America’s teachers are hardly abandoning incentives and the like. Barbara Powell, a professor of education at Eastern Illinois State who has been preparing teachers and studying motivation for more than a decade, told me that rewards and punishments are everywhere. “It’s a lot easier to implement a reward system than it is to get kids interested in what you’re teaching,” Powell said. “Most teachers have large classes and heavy teaching loads, and they don’t feel like they have the luxury of finding other ways to motivate kids.”

Anecdotal evidence confirms Powell’s claim. Many of my more progressive teacher friends acknowledge—often with considerable embarrassment—that they have at times resorted to token systems. “When I see a teacher using lots of rewards and punishments, it raises lots of red flags,” one veteran elementary school teacher told me. “Yet some of that external motivation stuff does work, and I’ve used it myself from time to time.”

Another friend, a 2nd grade teacher who tries to run an open, informal classroom, admitted that she rewarded good behavior last year with free activity time. Students accumulated points each week for punctuality, politeness, and other good behavior, tallying them up on Friday like shareholders going over profit-sharing statements. “I eventually stopped using it because it got competitive—a frenzy to get the most points,” she said. Would she use such a system again? “Maybe—the thing is, it does work.”

Progressive teachers often feel tremendous guilt and shame when they resort to incentive systems. Consider the case of Curt Dudley-Marling. An education professor at Boston University and well-known authority on language and literacy development, he left the safe haven of the ivory tower in 1992 to teach 3rd grade for a year at an ethnically diverse public school in Toronto. Dudley-Marling, who later documented his experience in his award-winning book, Living With Uncertainty: The Messy Reality of Classroom Practice, found that nothing worked as he had planned. He had wanted the children, for instance, to take ownership of their learning by working on projects freely and independently. Instead, he found that they needed significant teacher support and occasional prodding. He also had to revise his belief that whole language teachers such as himself don’t have discipline problems; giving students freedom of movement, he discovered, increases the chance for conflict.

By January, Dudley-Marling was so overwhelmed by his kids’ bad behavior that he implemented a token economy to restore order. Students earned points for being considerate during morning circle times and keeping track of their pencils, among other things; they lost points, meanwhile, for fighting or leaving the classroom without permission. Small rewards included time to play games on the computer; the largest reward was a day off from classwork.

In an interview, Dudley-Marling confessed his discomfort at having resorted to a point system. “It just seems so manipulative. I mean, I wouldn’t treat my own kids that way. At the end of the day, it just didn’t seem respectful. On the other hand, things were falling apart, and I was getting desperate.”

Eventually, Dudley-Marling concluded that if he had better organized the classroom and his activities, he wouldn’t have had to resort so frequently to rewards and punishments. “Sometimes I was pushing my luck, making excessive demands on the children’s attention and patience,” Dudley-Marling explained. “My biggest troubles occurred when I insisted on getting things done and so went on with lessons that were way too long. That’s when I resorted to extrinsic motivation. The smart thing to do in those situations is just to say, ‘Stop.’”

Dudley-Marling claimed that he never had trouble with student behavior during reading and writing times; the children were hooked on the intrinsic value of these activities because, as he put it, “they knew there was something in it for themselves.”

Dudley-Marling’s comments are intriguing. They suggest that rewards and punishment are the crutch of the teacher who does not know how to make his class interesting. According to this interpretation, the strict teacher is overcompensating for a lack of inventiveness: Without creative teaching strategies, he has to do whatever he can to keep bored kids in line.

This may sound like blaming the teacher for being less than perfect. Even Dudley-Marling emphasized that he was haunted by his inability to live up to the ideal of the “good teacher” who never has discipline problems and whose students are always deeply engaged. Indeed, Dudley-Marling argued that the good teacher ideal has done little more than hamper teachers with massive inferiority complexes.

Still, it seems true that the skillful, well-organized teacher relies less on extrinsic motivation than others. “Things fall apart because of the way I’ve prepared—or haven’t prepared myself,” one 5th grade teacher told me. “They also fall apart when I’m bored with what I’m teaching. Interest in a subject is contagious, and if I don’t feel interested, they don’t either. Then I’ll find myself using bribes and threats to hold everything together.”

Of course, if systems of rewards and punishments are really as bad as some assert, they would have been swept from the classroom years ago. The fact that so many teachers deploy them points to some inherent value. Even many of the researchers critical of rewards are reluctant to condemn them unconditionally. Harvard’s Amabile, for one, is careful not to proscribe against all forms of extrinsic motivation, despite having spent the last two decades documenting its detrimental effects on creativity. “We have recently discovered,” she writes, that certain forms of extrinsic motivation “do not necessarily detract from intrinsic motivation and creativity. Rather these motivators...may actually increase creativity.”

Amabile offers several examples of valuable extrinsic motivation. Praise, for instance, can abet students’ efforts when it is given not as flattery but as information—"the confirmation of one’s achievement by respected others.” She also discovered, interestingly enough, that low-skilled students are often more creative when their work is to be evaluated—a prospect that tended to undermine the performance of others. Some students, she hypothesizes, need incentives to embark upon a task in which they have little intrinsic interest.

Amabile also surmises that evaluation and rewards may in some cases facilitate what she terms “algorithmic” processes—that is, tasks requiring that a student follow specific rules and procedures. “Heuristic” processes, on the other hand, which involve creative, open-ended problem-solving, are often stifled by external motivators. A student may sit down and learn musical notation with the help of incentives, but no prospect of reward is likely to help her improvise a jazz solo on the keyboard.

The experts and their research aside, teachers and parents—not to mention corporate executives and football coaches—aren’t likely to buy into the counterintuitive notion that extrinsic motivation doesn’t work. In America, accepting such a premise would be the equivalent of treason. After all, this is the land of opportunity, where the pursuit of happiness has always been roughly congruent with the quest to get rich. Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” dime store novels, which Alger turned out by the dozen following the Civil War, are all about poor boys who, through a combination of pluck and luck, get rich. One of Alger’s most famous heroes, Mark the Match Boy, eschews a seductive life of crime in favor of honest hustle not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because he hopes it will get him off the street corner and into a mansion. Mark is a good boy but expediently good. He wants the big payoff—the reward.

There are still plenty of Mark the Match Boys today, sitting in our classrooms and working part time at the bagel shop. I had plenty of Marks in the high school English classes I taught. They were, like Alger’s heroes, basically good and ambitious kids who usually didn’t give a damn about English literature or composition.

In an ideal world, these students would have been intrinsically interested in the subject at hand. I, as a reasonably skilled teacher, would have secured their interest in the poem, the novel, and the composition of an essay. And, failing that, I would have been versatile enough to change tactics—to find out where the students wanted to go and to follow them there. Maybe a contemporary comic novel instead of The Scarlet Letter, a spell of playwriting as a break from essay writing, the creation of an advertising campaign as part of a study on propaganda.

I did all these things and more, with some patches of success. But I was never able, under any circumstance, to get all or even most of my students deeply engaged in what I was teaching.

Does this mean I was a failure as a teacher? I don’t think so. I fault myself for many things—inadequate preparation, misguided intuition, missed opportunities. But I don’t blame myself for sometimes failing to have provoked the interest of students. A teacher can lure, inspire, and coerce, but he cannot “make” a student intrinsically interested in anything. A student must do that for himself.

In any case, most of my ambitious but uninterested students did well enough. A few actually became inspired by something; a few probably did not want to let their parents down. But the majority, I’m convinced, did well enough because they had a concept of themselves as reasonably successful people who needed good grades and adequate skills to attend college and get good jobs. They were, shall we say, intrinsically interested in getting ahead.

So in the final analysis, how should teachers motivate students? Perhaps that is altogether the wrong question, says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Perhaps teachers should instead focus on how to motivate themselves to become more deeply interested in—or remain deeply interested in—the subjects they teach.

Csikszentmihalyi is well- known for having developed and popularized the concept of “flow” while at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and ‘90s (he recently moved on to Claremont College in California). Essentially, flow is a state of total intellectual, emotional, and physical engagement in what one is doing, whether it’s writing a poem, designing software, or climbing a mountain. While in flow, people feel both challenge and pleasure. Often, they are so engrossed in the work at hand that they lose track of time.

Csikszentmihalyi has spent much of his career studying adolescents, concluding that talented teens spend considerably more time in flow than do their “average” peers. And teachers are not unlike their students. The good ones undoubtedly experience flow with the subjects they teach.

“Kids respond to teachers who feel passion for their subjects,” Csikszentmihalyi told me when I asked him who students considered the best teachers. “Their enthusiasm is contagious. If a math teacher gets all excited about number theory, the students will see that as a captivating, unusual thing about an adult. Many students perceive adults as bored, uninterested.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s work essentially debunks the idea that teachers need to go to elaborate lengths to spark their kids’ interest in learning. Intrinsically motivated teachers, it would appear, motivate students best. Everyone in flow, so to speak.

Of course, such a thing is not always possible, Csikszentmihalyi warned. No one is intrinsically motivated at all times, not even the most gifted teachers. And this is where extrinsic motivation comes into play.

At the time of our conversation, Csikszentmihalyi was finishing a new study of 1,000 teenagers. He told me that he had found that those who were most successful—whether gifted or not—had higher levels of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Yes, you have to enjoy what you are doing, the study implies. But you also need external goals to focus the mind.

Csikszentmihalyi used the example of an athlete. The desire to be a champion may spur a runner to train religiously. Nevertheless, while she’s running the race, she must suspend the goal of winning, instead focusing on the movements of the body, the condition of the track, and the gestalt of the other runners. Goals can focus the mind, but fixating on them can lead to distraction and disillusionment.

“What I’m trying to say is that it’s not really whether rewards are good or bad, but the extent to which they occupy your consciousness,” Csikszentmihalyi concluded. “Let’s face it—there are many important things we wouldn’t do without extrinsic motivation. Most kids would not go to school if they didn’t have to. There’s a carrot-and-stick approach to get them to go, and that’s probably the best we can do. So all people—students and teachers alike—are motivated by rewards and fear of punishment. But if these things are their main concerns then they—and the society of which they are part—are missing out.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s warning wasn’t directed at today’s education reformers, but it applies to them nonetheless. In the frenzy of the school accountability movement, the crude tools of behaviorism threaten, as Csikszentmihalyi might put it, to overoccupy our consciousness. To judge the necessarily variegated skills of students and teachers with an endless series of tests is as absurd as it is unfair—like putting huge scoreboards in classrooms and expecting adults and children to teach and learn under their imposing glare.

This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t regularly assess student achievement and punish deep and continuing poor performance. But if the makers of educational policies worried half as much about making what’s taught interesting and relevant as making it count, our children would be happier as well as productive. And that—even during a time in which productivity and prosperity seem to mean everything—has got to count for something.