Thursday, December 6, 2012

Should Teachers Avoid Using Extrinsic Motivation ("Bribes") ?

School Days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
(Music by Gus Edwards; Lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907)

Dear old golden rule days! Hah! The tune of a hickory stick was often accompanied by a crying soloist, or even a chorale of weeping. That's nostalgia!

My ideal school would be something along the lines of A.S. Neill's Summerhill: no compulsion whatsoever, students would attend classes when and if they find them intrinsically motivating, no adversive extrinsic motivators would be employed to "keep them in line."

Alas, in my 50 years of professional engagement (25 in public schools) with learners at all levels I regret to say that Summerhill was not even a remotely considered model of schooling to be found (or desired, especially by most parents who could afford it.)

Should extrinsic motivators be used in the classroom? Yes, if you know what they are and how long they will be effective; if you can afford them and if you need them.

There is no moral issue here that has not already been foreclosed on by parents or school boards. Kids come in to school having been trained with extrinsic motivators most of their young lives, e.g. "no TV until you eat your peas," or "Absences from school will lower your grades, no matter what your test average." What intrinsic motivators they might still have at entry will soon be disabled by the regimentation of school procedures, or for the convenience of their adult caretakers.

So before we start -- as many suggest -- proscribing the use of extrinsic motivators from schools let's consider the following issues:

1. (to repeat) students come to school acculturated to, indeed, expecting to be offered extrinsic motivators (and usually knowing how to exploit them);

2. Schools, especially public schools, are compulsory and regimented, no matter that the iron fist is usually concealed in the "humanistic" velvet glove of professional "attitude adjusters"; this affects motivation substantially.

3. People, including kids, are individuals with intrinsic interests that vary both in object, in intensity and in duration. Such interests are not easily summoned on command. But mass education demands uniformity and regularity.
Important to consider is that extrinsic motivators can be skillfully used to bring students to acquire new intrinsic interests if older ones are seen as inappropriate to the schoolroom. In addition, extrinsic motivators plug in the gaps where intrinsic motivation is too varied, too weak or too intermittant to carry students through the curriculum.

But eschewing extrinsic approaches -- as faddists would now have it -- would preclude learning teaching skills using such approaches.

Educators would not be in the schools for very long but for the extrinsic motivators they receive. Nor would many adults be in their places of employment lacking extrinsic motivation. (Even with extrinsic motivation, teachers quit their jobs at 12-13% per year.)

Why should children be denied motivators which adults expect? I suspect there is little more to the prejudice against extrinsic motivators than the unrealistic hope, usually hidden, that the kids can be made to walk paths straight and narrow to make up for the prodigalities of parents and community.

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Evils of Public Schools