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Teaching Profession Opinion

Don’t Use Gimmicks to Motivate Students

June 05, 2018 3 min read

My son Miles hopped up on his bed with six of his favorite short stories that he wanted to read before bedtime. He had a voracious appetite for reading and loved asking “what if” questions about the characters in the stories. On this night, however, something changed. He finished reading the second book, closed the cover and then looked at me and said “I’m done.” With a puzzled look I uttered, “But I thought you wanted to read all six of these books tonight?” Miles replied, “I only need to read two to get the pizza coupon.” In an instant I saw my son’s intrinsic motivation evaporate. Miles now saw reading as a means to an end; a hurdle to jump over in order to earn the reward.

I believe this discredited theory of motivation has done damage to our student’s innate intrinsic motivation. Need more evidence? Just visit virtually any school in America and you will see programs that offer gold stars, food treats, verbal praise and grades as extrinsic motivators with children. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin; they try to coerce or manipulate children into doing what we want. As Alfie Kohn states “I call these if-then rewards. If you do this then you will get that. It only gets you one thing, temporary compliance, but at a very high cost.”

As an instrumental music educator I am often asked, “How do you get kids to practice?” When I first began teaching, I did what I knew - practice charts. However, I found that students would lie about practice, forge parent signatures, and do the very minimum amount of time to achieve an A. As Dan Pink states, “The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.” I have found that when practice minutes or grades are the focus, students will work only to the point that triggers the reward and no further. Recall Miles and his reading—if students get a prize for reading two books, many will not pick up a third, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading.

I believe that we need to “work with” kids and not “do things to” them. We need to fan the flames of curiosity in every child and foster their love of learning. We can tap into intrinsic motivation by providing students some autonomy. How often do students have a say in what they do, when they do it and how they do it? Intrinsic motivation is also fueled by purpose or relevance. People, not just students, yearn to be part of a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. How often do we help students to “connect the dots”? Intrinsic motivation is also the desire to get better at something that matters to us. Mastery is the realization that getting better takes time, effort and persistence. How often do we empathize with our students? I love showing my students this video as it perfectly embodies the desire we need to have to get better and to learn more.

Educators, let us use research, not gimmicks, to inspire our students. Inspire students using autonomy, mastery, and purpose. My son and all future generations deserve the best we have to offer.

Enough with the carrots and sticks!

Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. Chris is the recent recipient of the UW-LaCrosse Burt & Norma Altman Distinguished Alumni Award, 2017 GRAMMY Music Educator Award semifinalist, 2016 Michael G. George Distinguished Music Education Service Award and 2018 National LifeChanger of the Year Award nominee. Chris is a Teacher Leadership and Engagement Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and serves on committees with TED-Ed and Teach Plus. He is also a proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

Photo courtesy of Alan O’Rourke and Creative Commons.

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