To Motivate Students for Lifelong Learning, Skip the Gold Stars

It's tempting to reward academic achievement and positive behavior with extrinsic rewards. Stickers on top of homework sheets, perhaps a longer recess, or even pieces of candy are all strong motivators. And students will jump through all kinds of hoops to earn such prizes. But what's the long-term impact of these kinds of rewards?    

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Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, shines a light on the pitfalls of continually motivating children extrinsically. First, Pink notes extrinsic rewards may encourage certain types of behavior in the short-term but discourage students from learning for their own benefit in the long term. They also are shown to have an adverse effect on creativity and may limit a student's overall performance. And perhaps most concerning of all, they may even stifle positive conduct and promote cheating. For these and many other reasons, teachers need to pay close attention to the way we encourage certain behavior. 

So how should schools foster positive habits and promote academic success? I believe it starts with teachers modeling why they learn and the importance of having both a breadth and a depth of knowledge to enrich their students' experiences. When teachers are able to speak about motivations to learn from the heart, it sets students along a path toward learning for intrinsic reasons.

Helping children become engaged learners who are respectful of others is a goal parents and teachers share, but how students get there is just as important. And the more students develop their intrinsic motivation for these life lessons, the more likely these qualities will continue to be fostered long after the supply of stickers or candy goes away.


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