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Outside In

by Michael Milone on Dec 7, 2017

  • General Education
  • Literacy

Intrinsic Motivation Doesn't Start That Way

One of the most annoying misunderstandings about learning is there should be no external rewards of any kind at any time EVER. What makes it especially annoying is everyone who insists this is the case has pursued or received external rewards their entire life, and they still are.

All of us do some things because we like to. We also do our best to instill in the children we teach and others this same feeling. Intrinsic rewards (like positively identifying a plant as a nodding buckwheat...true story) are wonderfully motivating, but we are not born with the ability to generate this motivation. We learn it through a variety of processes, starting at an early age.

The most obvious evidence of this is the parent who reads to a child from earliest infancy. The baby sits on the parent's lap embraced by loving arms. The prosodic words coming from the parent’s mouth are emotionally satisfying. The feeling of comfort for the infant is overwhelmingly pleasant. The colorful book held in the hands at the end of the loving arms soon becomes associated with these extraordinarily pleasant feelings. This fortunate baby has taken the first step toward a love of reading.

Thoughtful Reinforcement

Before you go stomping off to read one of the many diatribes against the use of external rewards, including research-based arguments, consider this: I'm not suggesting we turn our schools or society into a sideshow in which everything is motivated by external rewards and punishments. (Oh, wait, maybe that already has happened to our society.) My point is we should use thoughtful reinforcement strategies to help students and others develop the cognitive and emotional skills to help them become wonderful people.

Artist Mary Cassatt has painted a number of scenes showing people reading. One of my favorites is The Garden Reading, also called Family Group Reading. It shows a grandmother reading a book to a granddaughter with the girl's mother close beside them. Relationships such as this make it likely children will internalize a love of reading...or anything else done in a similar way.

If you decide to read about motivation, you will probably come upon a work by Edward L. Deci and his colleagues titled "Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again." This article, in addition to being thoughtful in many ways, also is entertaining because it is a bit of an academic skirmish. If this topic interests you, be sure to read (or skim) to the end to read Judy Cameron's response to some criticisms of her work by Deci et al. She concludes, among other things: 

"On tasks of low initial interest, extrinsic rewards can be used to increase motivation and performance. On high-interest tasks, verbal praise and tangible rewards linked to success or to obtaining or exceeding a specific performance standard can enhance people's interest without disrupting performance of the activity in a free-choice setting...educators most often provide rewards to shape successful performance and to recognize student accomplishment."

Another study of the topic was conducted by the seemingly after-test-pizza-party-haters Mark Lepper and his colleagues. (They really aren't such party poopers. Read on.) Their title is kind of clickbait-ish: UNDERMINING CHILDREN'S INTRINSIC INTEREST WITH EXTRINSIC REWARD: A TEST OF THE "OVERJUSTIFICATION" HYPOTHESIS.

The all-caps title of the article is how the journal published it, and I couldn't resist replicating it. The implied screaming is SO consistent with the text of the title, don't you think? Despite the hyperbolic nature of the title, the authors are thoughtful in their conclusions.

"The present experiment does not speak to situations which depart very greatly from the present situation. There is considerable evidence from studies of token-economy pro- grams (Fargo, Behrns, & Nolen, 1970; O'Leary & Drabman, 1971) supporting the proposition that extrinsic incentives may often be used effectively to increase interest in certain broad classes of activities. On the present line of reasoning, this proposition should be particularly true when (a) the level of initial intrinsic interest in the activity is very low and some extrinsic device is essential for producing involvement with the activity; or (b) the activity is one whose attractiveness becomes apparent only through engaging in it for a long time or only after some minimal level of mastery has been attained."

The Joy of Learning

Perhaps the most important consideration to keep in mind when trying to motivate students while helping them acquire a proper internal guidance system is no one strategy will work for everyone.

What some people call the "innate" love of reading or an "inborn" sense of curiosity is more a reflection of early life experiences than a genetic gift. A child from a bookish, middle-class family is more likely to be interested in reading or related academic activities than a peer from a family with other interests and fewer resources.

Do whatever it takes to engender the joy of learning in all of your students, and then help them develop the emotional strength needed to make this joy a personally motivated and lifelong pursuit.


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