The Pitfalls of Extrinsic Motivation

by Terry Gill

With society’s preoccupation on success, it is not surprising that children see value in the pursuit of good grades and rewards. Unfortunately in this pursuit of extrinsic rewards (controlled motivation), students may lose appreciation for the joy of learning (intrinsic motivation).

Instead of focusing on the students’ lack of motivation, we must assess our teaching practices or attitudes that can undermine a student’s motivation to learn. We must understand how we can empower students by focusing on what motivates them. Failing to empower students, ignoring their abilities and interests, can result in low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.

As an educator, I have come up with the 6 Cs of character that are essential in providing an intrinsically motivated learning environment.  The formula for change is (6C+s = change)

  • Concern
  • Compassion
  • Communicate
  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Collaborate
  • s = self-reflection.  

We need to be concerned what scientific research says about the effects of the still popular practice of extrinsic rewards in the school system, a practice that has proven to get the ”job done” and “induces” children to behave.  

As educators, if we are truly compassionate for each child’s well-being, we need to be open to changing our practices to be more in tune with how children perceive things.

As a grade three teacher, I encouraged my 8-year old students to express how they felt about the monthly Character Awards assemblies, where prizes were given to students who were chosen by teachers and administrators. The students’ responses were heart wrenching.

One little boy recalled an assembly in kindergarten, when a classmate who would bully and harass him, won the year-end top award of Character. I asked him how he felt about that.  Even after several years, he responded: sad, confused and discouraged. It was clearly still bothering him.

Other students felt the assemblies made them nervous and sad, because when they saw whose parents were invited they knew they did not win. Some felt it made their parents upset with them if they did not get an award.

The one comment that still haunts me was, “It makes me feel invisible because nobody sees me doing good things!” Sadly, that was from a student who truly demonstrated wonderful character traits daily, but educators took that for granted.

After struggling for many years with this concept of awarding prizes for doing the right thing, I decided to change. I put less focus on rewards and developed an environment where students take on more ownership of and pride in meeting their personal goals of success.  

After much research, which included attending Character.org’s Forums, learning from scholars in the field of character education, reading materials that cited empirical data on the effects of extrinsic rewards, I became committed in making the necessary steps to bring awareness of the dangers of competition and rewards in a child’s learning and development of character.  

I wanted to empower the students. On the first day of school we developed a character team, often called the “CTC” (Commit To Character) Club. Although, it was a club, everyone was included, inside and outside the classroom. Together, we discussed strategies that would help empower them as active and responsible individuals.   

I made a conscious effort to communicate to the class before each assembly how valuable they all are and how difficult it was for me to pick one or two students because of a school-wide decision to give out prizes. As a group we took the opportunity to remind each other of the efforts being made to maintain a safe caring environment and discussed how we can still improve. They often took this time to share how great they felt in demonstrating good character.  Initially, I would remind them that those wonderful feelings were theirs to keep in their hearts and those feelings will outlast any tangible dollar store prize. It only took the class several weeks for them to embrace the importance of encouraging others, supporting each other and gaining a sense of self-appreciation and respect for the difference they were making in the classroom and school.

In my commitment, and attempt to communicate, I reached out to see if the school would make the change.  Unfortunately, under that particular administration and core group of staff, there was strong support for the rewards system that has saturated the educational system over many decades. Their actions upheld the principle “if you do this, then we will give you that.”  Their controlled motivation practice of rewards at the assemblies included winning gift cards and other prizes at school-wide monthly character assemblies. This controlled motivation practice gave the teachers and administration the power rather than allowing the students to take ownership.

As an educator it takes courage to speak up and stand up for what one feels is ethically right and scientifically proven to be the best practices. In my case, it meant I was no longer recognized as a leader in the character education program at that school, exclusion became evident to even the bystanders watching on, and other harassing tactics were painful and disheartening. I learnt in my situation it takes courage step out and be a change agent.

It is also imperative to collaborate with other professionals in the learning community who also recognize the need to move from an extrinsically motivated teaching model. Indulging in the research that has been done over the years about the long term effects of extrinsic rewards on an individual’s intrinsic motivation can truly be informative.  

As educators we need to self-reflect on our instructional practices.  We need to understand and provide instructional practices and strategies that have a scientific foundation and have been shown to enhance each student’s sense of ownership and ability to become active inquiry learners.  

For students to feel empowered, they need to feel safe, strong, worthwhile and free to express. Over the years, I realized from my students’ reactions, educators are failing to ask students how they truly feel about people winning prizes at a school-wide assembly or competitions in the classroom using tangible prizes or points. Though educator’s motives may be sincere, it does not mean extrinsic rewards are the best practice for student’s self-worth and long term motivation.

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest
Close Menu
Translate »