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Rethinking extrinsic rewards: Do tangible rewards foster a child’s love for learning? 
By Anna Rita Pergolizzi-Wentworth, DMA Head of School
  In the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009), author Daniel Pink reveals how extrinsic rewards intended to promote more productivity actually decrease the quality of a person’s work and stifle intrinsic motivation or internal drive. Pink’s views are important to consider not only in the workforce, but also in how we motivate our children to learn. The hope that all children will leave school as “lifelong learners” is often a school’s stated or unstated mission. But how does a school’s practice actually help or hinder children from becoming individuals who truly enjoy learning for its own sake? 

According to a number of research studies, the common practice of providing students with tangible extrinsic rewards - such as stickers, prizes, parties, etc. – as an incentive to complete work or engage in tasks, actually undermines intrinsic motivation and diminishes the quality of students’ work in the long-run. For example, one study, which compared the drawings of three groups of pre-school-aged children, found that children who had received a reward for drawing spent about 50% less time drawing than those who had received no award or a surprise award (Lepper et al., 1973).
   
 

In addition to a decreased interest (as measured by the time spent on drawing), the quality of the drawings produced by the children who received any type of award - surprise or not - diminished over time whereas the group that received no awards continued to produce drawings similar or better in quality than the initial drawings.

Regardless of age and measures used, numerous studies have subsequently replicated similar results (Newman, 1990; Tzuriel, 1989; Henderlong, 2000): Extrinsic rewards for engaging in tasks actually undermine children’s intrinsic motivation to learn. So why do so many schools and parents continue to use tangible extrinsic rewards? As Pink suggests, the reason may stem from the fact that using rewards is deemed “easier” and that changing an established societal norm or habit requires a serious commitment. 

In addition to commitment, schools and parents may require some tools to begin converting an extrinsic reward-based classroom or lifestyle into one that nurtures a child’s autonomy, sense of purpose, and mastery through intrinsic motivators.

In an effort to support educators and parents wishing to make such a change, here are some helpful tips to foster your children’s motivation and drive: 

  • Be specific and communicate clear learning goals
  • Praise rather than reward
  • Praise persistence
  • Praise trying different strategies
  • Praise personal progress and learning
  • Praise seeking help
  • Praise behavior rather than the child

 

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