Revitalizing the Reputation of Motivation through Rewards

Published July 1, 2014

According to data collected by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, American students continue to slide down the international rankings, failing to break the top 20 best-performing countries as of 2012. U.S. students rank below average in math and near average in reading and science. PISA is just one assessment, but it reflects a clear trend: U.S. students are not achieving what they need to achieve in an increasingly competitive global economy.

In an all-too-familiar response to such bad news, the education establishment is demanding even more money for public education. But huge spending increases over the past few decades have brought no improvement. We need sweeping reforms, and an important element of those reforms should be incentive-based learning, which uses research in psychology, sociology, and economics to implement rewards for learning.

As Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast note in their forthcoming book, Rewards: How to Use Rewards to Help Children Learn—and Why Teachers Don’t Use Them Well, “One reason rewards are so powerful is because they teach young children to defer gratification. Success in later life depends in part on our ability to wait for greater rewards in the future rather than seize less-valuable immediate rewards.” The PISA data show this approach has promise: Although students’ responses indicated student-teacher relationships were positive, the students lacked motivation to tackle more challenging subjects. Greater use of rewards across curricula would provide that motivation.

Defenders of the current system consider rewards a negative and “demotivating” force in education, as Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan argued in Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, in early 2000. They interpreted data from in-classroom experiments and decades of research as indicating an overuse of external rewards could overrule and even extinguish intrinsic motivation and cause students to develop “resentment, resistance and … disinterest,” in academic subjects.

Walberg and Bast call for realistic rewards based on individual classrooms and pupils. Ideally, curricula and educators nurture students’ intrinsic thirst for knowledge; in a utopia, approval, encouragement, and stimulating teaching techniques would quench that thirst. But in reality, students are individuals, and you have to “shoot for the middle,” as one educator told me, to reach the greatest number of students. In a typical American classroom, which averages 16 students per teacher according to 2010 data, lessons will vary in their appeal to different students. Having a reward system in place gives teachers a way to motivate students who are less academically or personally inclined to learn. 

Because of this natural variation in children’s interests and aptitudes, reward and punishment in education have a lengthy history. Punishment is still a common remedy for misbehavior, built into discipline programs everywhere. Why then, is the idea of positive incentives so abhorrent to some educators? A longtime teacher told me one principal she worked for likened incentive-based learning to training circus animals. Circus animals respond to rewards, and students are not circus animals, he said.

Walberg and Bast refute this notion of rewards as demeaning, by reminding us of the broad definition of the word. “Rewards need not be crude ‘carrots and sticks’ but can take the form of feedback and encouragement that make learning a rewarding experience long before the acquisition of a particular piece of knowledge or skill might earn material rewards,” they write.

Even Deci and Ryan admit “motivation is hardly a unitary phenomenon. People not only have different amounts, but also different kinds of motivation.” They acknowledge both internal and external motivators, such as seeking approval from a parent or teacher, as possible inducements for achievement.

Responding to external rewards is an important lesson in itself, Walberg and Bast note. “Even if reward skeptics were to prevail, what they advocate would be dysfunctional for occupational life after school completion, which is substantially driven by extrinsic rewards in the form of employment, bonuses, raises, promotions, and work recognition,” they write.

Experience clearly shows people rarely rely solely on internal motivations for success—very few great scientists have hidden their discoveries, and few great authors have refused publication. Although some students will accomplish much on their own initiative, response to tangible rewards is inherent to human nature. From monetary incentives to acknowledgement of success, humans crave rewards in addition to self-fulfillment through achievement. Ignoring this reality in the classroom does students a disservice.

Ashley Bateman is a freelance reporter for School Reform News.