When children behave in positive ways, do they feel good about this because they see themselves as developing strengths, skills and positive qualities and perhaps doing something worthwhile – or because they get a sticker or certificate? Dr. Helen Street at the Positive Schools conferences across Australia this month gave a presentation on why extrinsic rewards for children were demotivating. This can be hard for teachers to take and to be honest I had a bit of a struggle with the idea at first. We are all deeply embedded in a culture of ‘you get what you pay for’. But Helen’s talk reinforced research on motivation over many years. Dan Pink’s eleven minutes RSAnimate talk reports on a raft of rigorous evidence to show that offering people more money as an incentive to do something better not only doesn’t work, it detracts from their performance – unless that performance requires minimal cognitive skill. This does not sit well with the discourse about needing to pay top executives outrageous bonuses or they will go elsewhere. It also goes against the layered reward system embedded in many positive behaviour programs in schools as well as the common practice of parents encouraging their children to be helpful or industrious by offering various shaped and sized carrots!

There are dangers inherent in this sort of extrinsic reward system and the most obvious is the way it turns back on itself. Imagine this conversation:

Last week:
Jack, I need you to help me tidy the garage.
Why, it’s your garage
Yes, I know but there’s a lot of your stuff in there
I have got better things to do this weekend
I will give you an extra $20 pocket money.
OK then.

This week:
Jack, I need you to tidy your room
Why, it’s my room
Yes, I know but it’s a real pigsty and I don’t see why I should do it
Well, give me $20 and I’ll think about it.
Certainly not – it’s your mess and your responsibility to clear it up
Not a chance

So what does motivate people to work hard, change their behaviour or collaborate with others? What drives many of the teachers I work with is the sense that what they are doing is meaningful. Every day they have the opportunity to make a difference to students’ lives. This part of their job they love. It is what gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them on the lookout for ideas about how to present learning in new and interesting ways. What is stressful for many teachers is not so much their time in the classroom as the mountain of paperwork that now comes with the job. They see only minimal value or purpose in this. It is not only time-consuming it is de-motivating.

Autonomy is a driver. This is having freedom of choice and opportunities to make your own decisions rather than someone standing over you making demands.

A powerful examples of this is a student I worked with who had been ‘on report’ for her insolent and uncooperative behaviour. She carried around a tatty scrap of paper for teachers to sign to say she had been in class and what her behaviour had been like. This wasn’t working to improve anything. The deputy principal and I sat down with her one day and asked her what she would like to aim for and what she thought she could manage with respect to changing her behaviour. She came up with three things and these were put into a nicely presented booklet. She was encouraged to illustrate the cover and teachers asked to comment positively on what had been achieved. Not only did this student feel proud of her progress but others came to ask to go on the same sort of report!

People work hard when they want to get better at something – for themselves. It makes them feel good. So much of education is competitive and when this is the dominant culture in a school there will always be losers. Personal bests are a sensible and effective way of reducing the negative impact of this culture. Professor Andrew Martin talked about this at the conference. When you are competing against yourself you will always be a winner. It is motivating to know that step-by-step you are making progress.

We know how important a sense of connectedness is for resilience. When people do things as part of a community, have fun together and everyone uses their strengths to contribute, this too is motivating. You don’t want to let people down. Our bubble-wrapped kids often have everything done for them by over-protective parents; they don’t get that great sense of belonging by doing things together and for each other. This needs to start early in life – it is hard to change when children become teenagers but you only have to look at some non-Western cultures to know what the possibilities are.

When our children were about 10 and 12 our weekly cleaner retired. For the next three years instead of employing someone we cleaned the house together as a family. We called it ‘the blitz’! We agreed which day and time suited everyone, each week the kids chose which of the communal areas they would take responsibility for, they chose the music we would have on and they chose the take out meal we had when we’d finished. It was fun, the children were pleased with the difference they made, they learnt how to use a toilet brush and a vacuum cleaner and no money ever changed hands! The rewards were intrinsic.

What is truly motivating are the same things that bring authentic wellbeing – purpose, autonomy, meaning and connectedness. If we are going to move forward in education we need to revisit the value of extrinsic rewards. Students need encouragement and no doubt some teachers will see stickers and certificates as keeping students on track. But to do something primarily for an extrinsic reward, whether that is a tangible piece of paper or the approval of an adult can backfire in the longer term. Let’s do things differently. Let’s aim to motivate students to change their behaviour from the inside out.

© Sue Roffey 2013 : Roffey.S. (2011) Changing Behaviour in Schools: Sage Publishers