To reward or not to reward, that is the question. At some point, all teachers, parents, educational therapists, and, well, pretty much anyone who works with kids, find themselves in a place where they are tempted to trade a bag of M&Ms, some sparkly pencils or a pizza party for compliance. It’s just a small _____, what harm could it do?
To answer that question, we need to look at the two types of motivation a person can have: internal and external. Internal motivation is what we feel when we want to do an activity, or to have done an activity, for its own sake or for the affect it brings us. In either case, the motivation comes from within.
External motivation, in contrast, is what we feel when someone else is furnishing our motivation, either through reward or punishment. A kid quieting in a grocery store for the promise of a chocolate bar, a student working hard to earn ten dollars for an A, a class completing its work to get stickers, all are examples of external motivation.
We can all agree that our ideal is for every child to grow up to be internally motivated, right? Phrases like, “lifelong” and “independent” learner mean just that: we want to raise kids who love to work hard.
Here’s the thing: offering external motivation for a task does not produce internal motivation. In fact, it destroys it.
In a classic study on motivation done in 1973, two groups of preschool children were asked to draw some pictures. One group was simply asked to draw; the other group was told that if they completed X number of pictures, they could earn a reward. Both groups drew fine. But here is where it gets interesting: researchers left both groups alone and observed their behavior. The non-reward group went back to drawing, as it is an intrinsically motivating (read: fun) activity. The reward group? Wouldn’t touch the drawing stuff. Why should they? They wouldn’t get anything for it, right? In short, giving a reward made an intrinsically rewarding activity into a chore.
Another problem with using rewards to motivate students, or even adults, is that eroding internal motivation sets up the need for a never-ending system of increasing rewards. Employee of the Month isn’t good enough. We want to be recognized for Employee of the Day.
Both in the classroom and in one-on-one work, I have students who ask me what they will get if they win a given game. I always tell them, “The satisfaction of having beaten your teacher.” They usually role their eyes, but they never refuse to play. Why? It’s fun. You know why? Nothing motivates like success. In fact, successful problem solving releases dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, in a student’s brain.
I have one student in particular who, when learning a new concept, tries to avoid the work like the plague. Her anxiety over failure makes her want to play it safe. The moment she has the new concept, she practically yells at me to let her do it herself, followed by requests for more and more of the same type of problem, often to the point of arguing with me that she needs more homework sheets to take home and do independently.
This is the behavior we all wish for all our students. You want me to give you more work and more practice? Heck yeah! And this amazing situation arises without any external reward at all. My student doesn’t need it; she’s got all the internal motivation she needs.