As I argued in my earlier post, merit pay is a massive disincentive for many teachers. Dangling a bonus in front of me is not going to make me more productive or a better teacher. And reward schemes for students don’t foster intrinsic motivation. In fact, Alfie Kohn argues in his book ‘Punished by Rewards‘ that they have the exact opposite effect. Interest and engagement declines after rewards, or even certain types of praise, are given for student performance.
How can we motivate people to engage in tasks or learning that they do not find intrinsically rewarding?
Reflecting on my own habits I can tell you it’s not money.
If I think about how I motivate myself to do what I don’t like to do, it comes down to having my vision fixed on the bigger picture. I want my students to learn to read, so I put the hard yards in planning, programming, diagnosing, assessing, researching ways of supporting students having difficulty, finding new resources etc. The reward comes in when I see the fruits of my labour – my struggling readers becoming confident and learning to enjoy reading.
I don’t like to clean my house, but I love to be in a clean and peaceful environment, so I focus on that, not the irksome tasks it takes to get there. I hate ironing clothes, but I today I’ll do some because I have a new dress I’m excited about wearing out tonight.
Perhaps a similar approach will help motivate students. If the end they are working towards is something they are excited about, then they’ll be more willing to complete the mundane tasks that get them there. This does not mean an external award – like a class party if they all complete an assignment. The work itself has to have a direct and meaningful link to the outcome.
Project Based and Passion Based Learning
Project and Passion Based Learning may be the answer. Last year as an interest project, one of my students, who was not a good writer, decided he wanted to learn how to make a website. I gave him a Weebly account and he went to work. In his enthusiasm for building a website about science, he created pages for the different science ideas he was interested in – and then he had to write for them. Not only did he have to write, he had to proofread, checking his work for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Oh, and while he was at it, he had to think about navigation. Would his website be linear or non-linear? Would links open up in the same page or in a new page? Should he include a home button on each page? Then there was attribution. He had to learn about acknowledging his sources and creative commons. Throughout the whole process he was learning how to be a better writer.
But I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of awards and merits entirely – which seems to be what Kohn is suggesting (though I haven’t finished his book yet). And there is NO WAY I would suggest that to a Kindergarten teacher about to start the year with a group of 20 wild, unschooled 4 and 5 year olds. In fact, I’d be encouraging them to use every incentive plan they can think of!
For information about Project Based and Passion Based Learning, check out the links below.
- Merit Pay – is it an incentive or an insult? (aboutteaching.wordpress.com)
- The Problem with Merit Systems (aboutteaching.wordpress.com)
- What is Genius Hour – a great system for passion based learning
- Project Based Learning (biancahewes.wordpress.com)