Monday, November 3, 2014


Last week I was interviewing students in focus groups. The first group were 3rd graders, then 4th, then 5th, ending with 6th. Maybe it was because they came at me in such neat developmental order, but I noticed something interesting I hadn't noticed before.

When I asked the third graders what made them work their hardest in school, almost all of them mentioned getting prizes of some kind or another: from small toys, to extra time to play, to parties. When I asked the 4th and 5th graders, most of them answered with the importance of their efforts to getting into college and/or getting a good job. When I asked the 6th graders, most of them answered that they liked learning new things or were motivated to try harder when they got something wrong.

Do you see it? There is a move from extrinsic rewards (prizes that have little natural connection to the effort to earn those prizes) to external, but internally desired rewards (benefits that have a natural connection to the effort to earn them) to intrinsic rewards (benefits that are directly related to the effort itself). The 3rd graders were all about the bling, the 4th and 5th graders were all about the future payoff, the 6th graders were all about the learning for learning's sake.

There has been a lot written about extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards in education. Some say motivating students with stickers and various kinds of prizes is a necessary transition to the more mature intrinsic motivation that comes later. Other say that extrinsic rewards do students no favors, teaching them only that learning has some other goal whether it be grades or, later in life, money.

For now let's agree that those 6th graders are on their way to becoming lifelong learners.

1 comment:

Debbie Baker said...

I wish we would continue to emphasize the need to be life-long learners. I am concerned about today's emphasis on "college and career ready" because that is short sighted. We must reach higher!