Earlier this week I wrote a post called Reward Not! It was prompted by my getting multiple catalogs filled with colorful pages of those small, useless toys bought by teachers who keep them in their classrooms for rewards and prizes.  In the same time frame, I was reading Drive by Daniel Pink.  In this book, Pink talks about intrinsic motivation, a concept that is the opposite of any reward system (extrinsic motivation.)

One quote from the early pages of this book really spoke to me, a coffee lover: “Rewards can deliver a short-term boost – just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours.  But the effect wears off- and worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.” (location 149)

There is something to this.  I can’t help but think about those kids I grew up with who got money as a reward for their report card: $10 for every B and $20 for every A.  Are you kidding me?  I would have been rollin’ in the Benjamins.  But it’s funny, now that I think of it because those kids, after a while ended up almost resenting the money (too much pressure?) OR expecting the money (much to their parents’ chagrin.)

In a 1978 study conducted by Mark Lepper and David Greene an interesting discovery was made.  Three groups of preschool aged students who clearly enjoyed drawing were asked to draw.  The first group was promised a reward before they began drawing, the second was given a reward after they drew, and the third was simply asked, but did not receive any reward.  Two weeks later, the researchers arrived in the classroom again and observed secretly.  They noticed that the students in the second and third groups drew, but the children in the first group, the ones that were promised and given rewards for drawing, did not.  Interesting, isn’t it?  “Those alluring prizes – so common in classrooms and cubicles,” Pink concludes, “had turned play into work.” (location 508)

I think this might be the key… read on:

“It wasn’t necessarily the rewards themselves that dampened the children’s interest.  Remember: when children didn’t expect a reward, receiving one had little impact on their intrinsic motivation.  Only contingent rewards – if you do this, then you’ll get that – had the negative effect.  Why?  ‘If-then’ rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy.”  (locations 509-513)

My last post Reward Not! elicited a few passionate comments from readers.  (I love that!)  It really prompted me to continue with this topic.  Linda Aragoni, a college writing instructor, commented on how she sometimes will acknowledge a students hard work with a simple lollipop and she saw this as just fine.  And, quite honestly I agree.  That simple gesture can be a sweet expression of noticing someone’s hard work.

The difference is in the nature of the reward.  Is it spontaneous or contingent?  Does the teacher have stickers to give out to those who wow her or is there a sticker chart on the wall with each student’s name?  It’s not that we shouldn’t reward people (with a high-five, some good feedback or even a surprise sticker), but more that we need to watch how we incentivize our classrooms.

Another huge piece to this puzzle I am piecing together for myself is the idea of autonomy.  More on that for the next post!

For now, I would love to hear your comments on this idea of contingent vs. spontaneous awards; rewards vs. incentives.


All excerpts are from Drive by Daniel Pink, Riverhead Books, 2009

Reward Not!
Autonomy for our Students