Character Education: The Triumph of Intrinsic Motivation Over Extrinsic Rewards

03.18.2021 ,

By Liliana Borrero, Associate Director of Learning Programs at Colegio Nueva Granada, Bogotá, Colombia

“When we think about the kind of character we want for our children,
it is clear that we want them to be able to judge what is right,
care deeply about what is right, and then do what they believe to be right
—even in the face of pressure from without and temptation from within.”
Thomas Lickona, 1991


Character.org was founded with the purpose of promoting character education and the 11 Principles Framework for Schools is their navigation map to help schools to effectively cultivate a culture of character. The 7th Principle of this practical guide states that for effective character education, schools need to foster students with self-motivation. This means that intrinsic motivation is emphasized over extrinsic motivation. If character can be understood as doing the right thing even in the face of pressure and doing our best work even when no one is looking, then it makes total sense that the desire to become agents of moral action needs to be fostered by the pedagogical strategy of intrinsic motivation and in the absence of rewards.


I am not affirming that there is no space or time for external motivators. Extrinsic motivators are effective in helping people engage in a task they do not find pleasant or things that if they were given a choice, they would not do. For example, when we want a child to complete a chore, such as washing the dishes, extrinsic motivators are a great tool. However, in such situations, the extrinsics will not necessarily make the child a better person. When the goal is to develop students of character, the failure relies on the attempt to use extrinsic motivators in character-building activities to help them internalize what is right. When we link moral action with extrinsic motivators, we lose the opportunity to help students experience the inherent satisfaction of doing what is right, of bridging the gap between “me” and “we.” “We´re programmed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans - known as psychopaths - no one is emotionally immune to another's situation” (De Waal, 2009, p. 43). In sum, extrinsic motivators steal the ingrained joy of acting virtuously. We need people to choose to do what is right, but for the right reasons.

The fact that renowned moral development experts such as Piaget and Kohlberg described children as self-centered and driven by extrinsic reinforcement, does not contradict the fact that intrinsic motivation can and should be instilled in children since their early ages. If a child's moral thinking is originally determined by external factors, then, character education can be understood as the triumph of intrinsic motivation over extrinsic rewards. It is a slow development pursuit that begins in childhood and continues throughout life.


Self-determination theory (SDT) strongly supports the role of intrinsic motivation for successful moral development. When teachers design learning environments that foster in students the three drivers of intrinsic motivation described by SDT, autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 1985), those students become more prone toward moral action. These drivers also enhance students' psychological and social well-being. Interestingly enough, these three elements are closely intertwined with the hallmarks of quality teaching and learning. Autonomy is potentialized through student voice, choice and agency, competence through scaffolding, feedback, and differentiation, and relatedness through caring relationships, clear learning objectives, relevance, and understanding of the value students create in the world around them (Borrero, 2008). Therefore, if schools are truly student-oriented and they implement best teaching practices for character development, then they should be fully aligned with SDT, and therefore, with internal motivation.


Defenders of extrinsic rewards state that these can be a useful tool to get people to complete a task or school assignment that they are not interested in or find unpleasant. Yet, there is still a way to avoid the use of extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic motivation is a natural human tendency, however, to flourish it needs to be nurtured by the social environment (Legault, 2016). Internalization is the process through which extrinsically motivated behaviors become more self-determined (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and relatedness plays a major role in this process: “Because extrinsically motivated behaviors are not inherently interesting and thus must initially be externally prompted, the primary reason people are likely to be willing to do the behaviors is that they are valued by significant others to whom they feel (or would like to feel) connected” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 64). Even more, Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, and Leone (1994) demonstrated that internalization could be promoted by providing a meaningful rationale for un-interesting behavior, accompanied by support for autonomy and relatedness.


Even though the Benningas et al (1991) study concluded that the use of extrinsics is no different in effect to using intrinsics, there are solid reasons why we should choose the latter. First, extrinsic rewards have a negative effect on internalization. The research has demonstrated that excessive external reinforcement for behavior that is already internally rewarding can reduce intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect (Berkowitz, 2012). There is also evidence that extrinsic rewards serve to undermine or weaken intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971; Lepper, Greene & Nisbett, 1973). On the other hand, intrinsic motivation results in desirable outcomes such as high-quality learning, creativity, character development, academic success, student engagement, transfer and grit (Barret & Morgan, 1995, Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). We know better, intrinsic motivation is an optimal form of motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008), it helps to bridge the gap between compliance and conviction.


Berkowitz (2012) affirms that extrinsic motivators are the worst ineffective character education practice used by educators. “They don't necessarily foster the kind of character that operates when adults aren't looking or when there´s no reward for doing the right thing” (Berkowitz, 2012, p. 49). Extrinsics are malignant when it comes to developing character because they weaken the child's motivation to do good, they manipulate behavior and control through seduction. In Streight's words, “at the heart of character we say ‘I'll do this because this is who I am” and this lies far back from a third” (2014, p. 7). In other words, our ideal self comes from our personal sense of morality and not from the standards for others.


Self-determination is by definition not directed by others, nonetheless, we can create the conditions so that people can motivate themselves by asking the right question: How are my students motivated? In the digital era when learning to learn has become a survival skill, self-determination becomes paramount. When it comes to character education the question is: What kind of person do I want to be? This question cannot be answered unless the answer comes from within.


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