What did you do that for? Rewards and motivation

ausines headphonesRecently, on the recommendation of my friend Rosie, I listened to a TED Talk by Michael Sandel “Why we shouldn’t trust markets with our civic life”.

Rosie and I often suggest Talks to each other and then share thoughts and comments about them.

This Talk, like most of those on TED, raises some very interesting, thought provoking and challenging ideas and issues. The issue of most importance to me in each of these Talks may not be the issue of most importance to Rosie, nor to any other listener. The understandings, beliefs and personal positions, (ideological, philosophical and ethical), that each person has will not only influence what they hear but how they interpret, organise and prioritise what they hear and what they take away from the Talk, whether intended by the speaker or not.

In this Talk, Michael raises themoney bag issue of motivating students to learn, a challenge experienced in many schools.  He invited the audience to consider whether cash rewards should be used as incentives for students to perform well on tests or to read books.

The reaction from the audience was mixed with fewer in favour of offering the rewards than against. When asked why cash incentives should not be used to encourage students to work harder or read more books, a participant stated that the students should be reading for intrinsic motivation, for an intrinsic desire to learn, and that a cash reward would take the intrinsic incentive away.

studentbooksHowever: If a child is a reluctant reader or reads only when required, does that child have any intrinsic motivation for reading? If not with cash rewards, how can we inculcate an intrinsic motivation to read? What is or has happened in this child’s experience that an intrinsic motivation to read has already been killed? (I will offer some thoughts on these issues in a future post.)

The argument for and against the use of rewards in schools, as well as homes, to encourage children to perform or behave in a particular way has waged for as long as I can remember and, I’m sure, even longer than that.


Should children receive a sticker, a star or an award for that? Shouldn’t they just do what we want of them for the sheer joy of it / because it will do them good / because it’s the right thing to do? Shouldn’t they be intrinsically motivated and have no need of extrinsic rewards?

It all sounds very good, doesn’t it? And maybe it works when a child is intrinsically motivated through a genuine interest, or maybe when children are happy to comply and perform expected tasks either through a need to please others or their own developing sense of how things should be.

But what of the child who does not have this intrinsic motivation, no need to please or any ability to see a personal purpose in expected tasks or behaviours?

One of the Talk participants suggested that results of offering a cash reward for reading books could be measured by a count of the books read while the reward was being offered, followed by a count of the books read after the payment ceased. Results of the experiment found that students, when offered cash rewards, read more books, but they also read shorter books.

And why should we expect any more of children than we do of adults?


How many adults perform their work tasks for the sheer joy of it, powered by intrinsic motivation? Only the lucky few, I would guess, who are able to combine passion with employment, or who have sufficient resources to maintain the lifestyle they desire. Isn’t the extrinsic reward a major motivator for much of what we do? I dare say the performance of most adult workers would not measure highly after payment ceased!


Okay. I know it’s not quite the same. The children are not in need of the cash rewards as they are supported by adults who receive cash rewards. Nevertheless, without that extrinsic reward, in most cases, that work would cease, regardless of whether the cash is actually required for survival or not.

However I am always drawn back to an attempt at reconciling intrinsic motivation with compulsory schooling.

tomas_arad_heartIntrinsic motivation is usually related to something of one’s own choice through interest, challenge or purpose. The motivation comes from within, not from the promise of any external reward.

So how does this work for children in school?

Not only is school attendance compulsory throughout most of their childhood years, children have few choices in school. They generally attend a school chosen by someone else, are taught by a teacher allocated by someone else, and expected to make friends with a group (class) allocated by someone else.

teacherbellThey line up, eat, talk, play and toilet on the ring of a bell and are expected to perform academic feats on command. When they progress from one year to the next, they often suffer the disruption of new class group arrangements, decided by somebody else for questionable reasons. What would be so harmful about a child going through all the years of schooling with the same group of friends?

Why then do we think that students should be intrinsically motivated to do something about which and in which they have very little choice and are most often powerless?

Learning for the love of it, for the sheer fun and joy of it is a marvellous goal. And I believe children are innately intrinsically motivated to learn.

How different would schools be if we began with the intrinsic motivation of each child and wrapped the leaning around that? How much more powerful would the learning be? What would that school look like?

Is that what we call a child-centred approach? An approach that values the interests and needs of each learner. An approach that starts where the child is and supports them to find the paths that take them where they want to be. An approach that values their individual styles and timeframes while providing just the right amount of challenge to stretch them beyond where they thought they were able to go. That piques their interest in a vast array of topics and supports their learning of skills to achieve their desires.

But often the lip service given to a child-centred approach in a traditional school, with all its constraints, still smacks of ‘You’ll do what I say but you’ll think that you have a choice’.

What slap in the face it is to tell someone that they must do this, when to do it and how to do it; and then tell them they must do it because they want to do it!

However there are teachers who passionately believe in a child-centred approach and in harnessing the power of intrinsic motivation. They work tirelessly and creatively, powered by their own intrinsic motivation, to employ a vast array of strategies designed to make a child’s opportunities for learning within the confines of an imposed curriculum of a traditional school motivating for each learner while targeting their individual needs.


Here are some strategies that teachers use in a child-centred approach:

  • Make connections with the children’s lives

–          discussing their experiences

–          valuing their contributions

–          involving parents

–          informing parents of classroom learning and experiences

  • Incorporate children’s interests

–          using negotiated topics and tasks

–          employing a variety of activities

  • Offer children some autonomy

–          using negotiated topics and tasks

–          employing a variety of activities

–          providing opportunities for independent and self-directed learning

  • Make learning fun, meaningful and explicit

–          using games, songs and hands-on participatory activity

–          explaining how classroom learning connects to purposes in life

–          providing clear and easy-to-follow procedures

–          providing opportunities for finding solutions to real problems

–          allowing explorations in creativity and innovation

  • Provide opportunities for cooperation and collaboration

–          working with a partner or in groups

–          allowing opportunities for discussion

  • Support and extend learning

–          harnessing  spontaneous opportunities for optimising learning

–          providing opportunities for practice and clarification

–          challenging learners to stretch their imaginations and abilities

  • Add joy and laughter through happiness and humour every day

These strategies may not tap into the intrinsic motivation of each student all of the time. However a supportive environment in which children are provided some choice of activities, opportunities to learn at a pace suited to their needs, and an understanding of the point of it all, will provide learners with the desire and skills to harness their intrinsic motivation for learning of their own choosing beyond the classroom.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “What did you do that for? Rewards and motivation

  1. shecando

    A very interesting article. If only my lecturer at uni could successfully convey these issues. The ‘Child Development and Learning’ subject could really be used more effectively to educate new teachers about the importance of understanding and incorporating these thoughts into their teaching philosophies.


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Thank you for your comment.
      The fact that you are thinking about these issues is a really good sign for the future of the children you work / will be working with. You obviously engage in reflection about your practice, in all your roles, and that is a very important ingredient for successful pedagogy and entails interrogating your philosophy about how children learn. I think it is important to have these philosophical discussions about how learners learn at all levels of education. Without them it is difficult to develop any real understanding of the learning process, which is vital for effective pedagogy.
      Keep up the great work.


  2. Bec

    Hi Nor,

    Thanks for this great post, it was really very intriguing to read and you have raised some issues which are so embedded in the ‘fabric’ of education and society that we can easily take them for granted.

    Your discussion on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards reminds me of some of the reflections on the ‘Landcare’ programme which in short is a ‘grassroots’ movement aiming to improve rural community sustainability, slow environmental degradation in working landscapes and scaffold innovation in agriculture. As the ‘movement’ gained ‘momentum’ (to continue with the metaphors), it became increasingly institutionalised in policy, and agencies were created to support Landcare.

    This presented great opportunities for the cost burden to be shared between land managers (i.e. farmers or landholders), the local community and the rest of Oz through financial incentives being provided to land managers for the remediation work they were doing on the landscapes.

    All of this is great, but it has been theorised that by providing financial ‘rewards’ for doing good things then reduces the ‘goodwill’ factor – i.e. the intrinsic motivation which I can see as being parallel to your discussion for intrinsic motivation for reading.

    I don’t feel I know enough about Landcare and the related social dynamics to argue for or against this view, but certainly it is interesting to wonder what we lose, as individuals or society, when we require a monetary (or material) reward for all positive actions we take. Whoops, got a bit carried away with this reply – see how your ideas get the rusty cogs turning in my brain!


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Bec,

      Thank you for the interesting tangent you took from my article; not unlike the one I took from the TED talk, which confirms that what we bring to the material we read or hear is as equally, if not more, important than the content of the material itself.

      The issue you raise occurs widely in society, as you say, not just in environmental issues e.g. why don’t those with time on their hands volunteer their services where they could be of value? I know the answer is complex, and I am also aware that many do, but I am also aware that many don’t, believing that it would be unfair for them to contribute for no personal reward when others are receiving payment for similar services. In fact, many expect to be rewarded, receive the “stickers”, in return for making minimal or no effort at all. I have no answers for any of these issues, only questions, so please don’t consider this response an answer.

      Years ago I read a book that suggested that acts performed out of “goodwill” are best performed anonymously, a suggestion that appealed greatly to me and a philosophy to which I have since subscribed. Which leads me to my next point – you never know what unseen “goodwill” may lie hidden beneath the surface, so you can never “judge a book by its cover”.

      “Rusty”? Never!

      Have a nice day! 😊🌏



  3. Rosie Thrupp

    I believe in intrinsic motivation. I strongly disliked (yes, hated) the giving of stickers etc. I preferred to celebrate learning and episodes to be celebrate in ways that enabled the child to value him or her self/ to acknowledge their work based on their achievements, not because an adult decided to reward them…because in life, often there is no one there to reward you…you have to be acknowledging of your own worth to be sufficiently resilient to conquer the challenges of life…

    Having said that, I agree with Norah…how often are there important things for us to learn for which we have no motivation; we can not see their importance…but they are important e.g. road safety – as a four year old, many do not see the importance of road safety because they know little of death and that death is a consequence of running in front of cars….

    Another quandry…as a Deputy Principal, I often strugged with class organisation for the following year…which children in which class, with which teacher to optimise their learning? and happiness? and motivation? I honestly did try to work that out and combine it with parent wishes, so I didn’t get yelled at too much…4 year 3 classes, for example…which children are operating well together? which child needs to be in another group? which teacher because there are only 4, will work best with which child, with which group and yes, with which parent? Norah’s point of children going through school with friends…yes, for the child that is great but sometimes, that group is disruptive to the rest of the class??? So many issues in Novmber every year…so then one goes to multi-age classes….but then there is a teacher issues…for how many years does a child need to be with one teacher (e.g. multi-age classes for 2 or 3 years) when the teacher has problems with teaching a particular area e.g. maths….


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Rosie,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment once again. I knew I was selling the decision-making process of class allocation a little short for those who truly consider the best interests of children, as you obviously did. However it doesn’t always happen that way with sometimes rather arbitrary decisions being made. Apologies to all those in power who do “rule” well. Perhaps this issue could be explored further in a future post, or maybe others will also have comments to make. It certainly is a tough job, working with people and decisions that will affect their lives. We never know the effect that our decisions will have, some intended, many not. But if we give each the fullest consideration and make those we believe to be in the best interests of the children within the possibilities of our decision-making then we have fulfilled our responsibility.


  4. glenn

    This was a great read Nor! As a kid i was always enamoured with reading, whereas my siblings were not. I have no idea why , but I’m certainly a very fortunate person for this love of words.


    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Glenn,
      Thank you for your comment. We are indeed fortunate to have a love of reading and a love of words. It is one of the greatest things we can share.



I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.