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March 2009

Extrinsic Motivators and Dictatorial Tactics: Elements of Control By Joe Bower "The passion for learning is not something you have to inspire kids to have; it’s something you have to keep from extinguishing.” ~Deborah Meier

A week ago, my science 8 class started to learn about cells by starting a poster project that would include creating metaphors for the specific organelles that make up a cell. I love using metaphors and so do most learners, as they really help to conceptualize and develop understanding, rather than just memorize. My classroom is made up of tables, rather than desks, so to encourage more interaction between students, and through out the year, I have found this setup to be conducive to learning. As the year has progressed, I had started to see the students become very cliquey, and so I assigned the groups this time to shake things up. I asked the students to be mature about this change and to be open-minded about working with someone new. They were awesome about the whole thing, and I was quite pleased with their willingness. All seemed to be going well. The students were not only learning, but they were enjoying the learning process. However, a problem arose when I returned in the afternoon from speaking at the Red Deer College as a guest speaker for an education class. I was approached by many of my students who wanted to express their sudden discontent about this project they had been enjoying. I was even more confused when I read a sticky note that was attached to my computer: Mr. Bower: Mark did not do anything. The only thing he did was cut out pictures. I’m not done yet. Samantha The fact that Mark hadn’t done a lot was not what caught my attention; rather it was the last sentence. Suddenly Samantha was more concerned with just getting this project done, when earlier she had simply concerned herself with the learning. Now this project had become a chore that she had to get done with a dead-beat partner. What changed? Why did this very cool project become such a drag? After a brief investigation,


I figured it out. My substitute teacher had, in the last 20 minutes of class, instructed my students that I had told him this project was due at the end of class. Well, you can imagine the public outcry. I knew we had to have a discussion about what had occurred the day before. I started asking questions1 (which by the way, teachers should do more of when attempting to help students solve problems). After a quick question-and-answer session where the students recounted for me what had happened the day before (and how unfair it all was), I asked them if it made sense that I decided the posters were to be due yesterday at the end of class. A resounding ‘no’ echoed through our classroom. I asked why they said no, and I received a handful of answers including the fact that anytime we have due dates in class, we decide them as a class. As the teacher, I don’t take it upon myself to subjectively decide when assignments will be due; rather, I pose the question to the students, and ask them for their feedback. I mean, who else would know better how much time students need to complete a project? (Perhaps the teacher might know if they actually did the same project they were expecting the students to do, but even then the teacher would have to realize that it is very likely that most students would require more time than that) In the end, we decided upon a due date in a democratic fashion2. The students and I had input on the final decision, and we reached a consensus. We could have easily gone back to learning at this time, but I had one more question. I asked the class if they had any ideas why the substitute suddenly told them that this poster was due. The arms shot up (which is ironic because I encourage students to not raise their hand, but they have been so well trained, they have a hard time breaking themselves of this habit). It was clear to them, and me, that this was an extrinsic ploy to motivate students into working harder. (I found this also very ironic, seeing that I was, at the same time, at the College speaking about why teachers shouldn’t use extrinsic motivators) I find it very unfortunate that teachers and parents use extrinsic motivators so often to make students do things. There are many reasons why extrinsic motivators are wholly and completely ineffectual3, and in this case the extrinsic motivator was simply distracting. Instead of allowing the students to continue their focus on learning about how a nucleus is like a quarterback of the cell, or how the Golgi apparatus is like a dump truck, they were suddenly forced to focus on just getting it done on time, which in turn made them focus on how unfair the whole situation was. Students were so distracted from learning that it would be easy to see how many of them would now see this project as something they just wished would go away. The good news is that when I returned to fix this unfortunate mishap, students were very willing to return to their natural, intrinsic desire to learn. All I had to do was remove the extrinsic motivators that were inhibiting their learning. It was amazing to see Samantha so willingly return to learning (notice I didn’t say work – students don’t work, they learn) with Mark on their cell poster. Samantha took great comfort in being able to see Mark as someone she could work with to help improve both of their learning, rather than seeing him as an obstacle to achieving a grade or meeting a due date. When children are treated with respect and teachers chose to work with students and their natural intrinsic desire to learn, rather than doing things to students by imposing


extrinsic motivators and dictatorial tactics, children learn. It is sadly ironic though that so many parents and teachers actually fabricate reward and punishment based strategies in order to motivate students to learn. The research4 has shown us time and time again that when we place these kinds of high-stakes, extrinsic motivators on students, they become so distracted that learning is relegated to secondary importance. This is unacceptable. As a professional, I can not think of a better reason to ensure that I provide an extrinsic free, democratic learning environment for all children. 1

Working Inside the Black Box:Assessment for Learning in the Classroom by Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall, and Dylan William is a very interesting article that asks the question: Is there room for improvement in how teachers use formative assessment to raise standards? They found that a teacher’s question asking techniques are highly influential on student learning. At first glance this may seem like a benign statement, almost intuitive; however, they found “many teachers do not plan and conduct classroom dialogue in ways that might help students to learn. Research has shown that, after asking a question, many teachers wait less than one second and then, if no answer is forthcoming, ask another question or answer the questions themselves.” The art of asking questions or facilitating a constructive discussion is anything but intuitive. 2

I find it very odd that we live in a society that expresses such love and appreciation for liberty, freedom and democracy; but, upon closer examination, our schools, the very institution that is responsible for cultivating our future citizens, are so undemocratic in their dictatorial-teacher ruled classrooms. For more on this topic, consider reading Democracy and Education by John Dewey. 3

For more on why extrinsic motivators are at best unhelpful and at worse harmful, consider reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. It is a very interesting read because it addresses how extrinsic motivators have been found to be ineffective in both the education and business world. It also sets straight the common misconception people have about motivation. Rather than asking how motivated your students are, we need to ask how are they motivated. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are inversely related; if one grows, the other diminishes. 4

For a more detailed look at the research, I suggest you take a look at Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and WellBeing. Essentially their finding state that people who are intrinsically motivated, in comparison to those who are extrinsically, have more interest, excitement and confidence for the actual task at hand, which then transitions into enhanced performance, persistence, creativity, vitality, self-esteem and general well-being.


Elements of Control