Behavior Rewards and Motivation

I’m curious what others think about this article.

I’m curious how the research works with the research supporting PBIS. I didn’t come to teaching to be a social scientist – I’d like social scientists to help me know what the evidence-based best practices are.

I wondered that too. The TED talk gives a bit of insight in that rewards worked well for rote, menial tasks but not for tasks that required creativity or deeper thought.

So, … getting to class on time, being prepared, cleaning up after yourself and others… these expectations that we do PBIS rewards for might be some of those rote/menial kinds of tasks?

Interesting article, thanks for posting it!

I started reading Drive (Pink’s book on the subject) but for whatever reason got sidetracked and didn’t finish it. But reading this article and remembering what I do from Pink’s position, it strikes me that the issue is more complex than is presented in the article.

Like Lelsie mentions, I thought Pink distinguished types of behavior for which extrinsic rewards work really well and the types of behavior where they don’t work well.

If anyone would like to read Pink’s book let me know, we can order. Also, Pink wrote Drive quite a while ago now. I bet there is more recent research on the topic.

What a great article, thanks for sharing!

It pretty much sums up what any teacher who has spent time in a classroom realizes, extrinsic motivations don’t necessarily change behavior. In order to change a behavior it must be value oriented and intrinsically motivated. We need to teach students to recognize the value in some shared beliefs or social norms in order to motivate them. The idea of extrinsic rewards has even gone so far as to try paying students for good grades or high test scores as explained by the National Education Association in the article “Cash for grades” ( As you might have guessed, even giving cold hard cash as a reward for some desired outcome doesn’t work. In fact, what some research has shown is that “the bigger the reward, the bigger the damage done.”

Programs like PBIS actually create a more viscous cycle if you ask me. You are teaching students that they should have their hands out and be expectant every time that they do something of value. If that reasoning stands, then everyone would have a head full of cavities and rotten teeth since no one gives you a reward for brushing your teeth. Having nice teeth are in themselves a reward for the act and the individual alone must be the one who values it. (Maybe a weak metaphor but you get the idea.)

I got a hold of the research article that is linked from the main article. It’s a meta-analysis of research on the topic. It was done in 1999 however, and the research it’s based on is likely considerably older than that. I’m going to try to read through it.

I’d be interested to see what recent research says on the topic. I do know that cognitive research in habits and productivity talks about the importance of rewarding stretches of work with breaks, fun, and other rewards, and that would seem to conflict directly with the intent of the article.

I’m very much on the fence with this one. I love the idea of intrinsic motivation and totally agree with Rob, but I’ve also found extrinsic motivation in many forms to be helpful in teaching, learning, and my own productivity.

One example where I’ve seen extrinsic motivation work (at least it sure seems like it works to me) is with Wayzata’s Middle School Boys Cross-Country program. They usually have tons of kids who are new to distance running, and at the beginning of the season that offer a “10-mile club” T-shirt to anyone who can complete a 10-mile run before the end of the season.

For kids who haven’t run more than 2 miles or so, that’s a seemingly impossible goal, but a ton of kids get those T-shirts. Our son still talks about how driven he was to get the T-shirt by the end of the season. He honestly didn’t care about the item itself, but it served as a tangible icon for an excellent intangible BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), and he still talks about how it motivated him to go to practice and work hard. He now plays soccer all-year round, and he attributes the conditioning he got from running cross-country in middle school as an element in why he’s successful in soccer. (It’s also worth noting that the school’s cross-country program wins national championships and is one of the strongest in the state year in and year out.)

I’ve seen lots of cases like this, where extrinsic rewards are used in ways that I can only say are effective. And that’s why I kind of lean back on the hunch that it’s not as simple as “extrinsic motivation is bad.” It seems like a much more complex concept, with implementations that are weak and ineffective, and implementations that are beneficial and effective.

Hmm, well put Mike and I can definitely see your point in saying that extrinsic motivation is not simply a black and white issue. Although, the more I think about it, we are still talking about a value driven initiative. The t-shirts that you mentioned for cross country are only given value because of what they stand for both in the individuals eyes, and those of the community in which they are a part. The t-shirts have a perceived value that goes far beyond the actual item, representing an idea or the attainment of a truly remarkable goal.

I agree that some form of extrinsic motivation works, if that item has value both to the individual and the community in which they are a part. This is the same concept as the coins that individuals receive for sobriety. This form of extrinsic motivation works because it gives the member something to focus on and place value in. Because I am not a part of that community those coins have no value to me; however, I can respect how hard others worked to earn them.

Extrinsic motivation does work, but only in the right context and for the right reasons. I don’t know what that formula is or how it works, but you know it when you see it. Extrinsic motivation does not work as a blanket school policy and it can cause harm when students are motivated by shallow trinkets rather than doing what is right or expected by the community.

When articles such as these are shared it is important to note that much of what is being offered is a misunderstanding of Behavioral Theory, and one of the principles of Behavioral Theory - Reinforcement Theory that explains human behavior in terms of the consequence ) what follows the behavior (action). A consequence that leads to strengthening the behavior or increasing the behavior is a Reinforcer. This is a long demonstrated, robust and COMPLEX approach to change in behavior (whether intentionally and systematically applied ) or inadvertently (this happens… a great deal of the time).
Unfortunately the misapplication of reinforcement theory happens in particularl when the Continuum of Reinforcers is ignored - that is the notion of the Continuum of Reinforcement and beginning with children where they are- are they functioning with a need for primary reinforcers (food, sleep, water, warmth) to social reinforcers (social attention, praise, applause, recognition of effort and work well done) to self reinforcement (where we learn to in essence reinforce ourselves for meeting a goal, conquering a fear)? The Continuum is OFTEN ignored by many who do not understand behavioral theory - so it behooves us to move our students from that very primary reinforcer to the intrinsic and sometimes, that intrinsic reinforcer paired with a symbol of success is extremely strong (Mike’s cross country example) and shows development on the part of the learner to be intrinsically motivated …

I think that what bears caution on our part in this article is the notion that somehow, relationships are excluded within Reinforcement theory … Social Reinforcers are real phenomena and teaching students to look for and learn based on positive social interactions is a critical. Clearly we as educators need to always be mindful of working with children/students where they are on the continuum and moving them towards the intrinsic end - it would be naive to think that this can be done without intentional planning and data to support progress.

Finally, it is troubling to be to see Character Education presented without careful reference to lack of evidence of efficacy of this particular program. Again, as educators we have so many opportunities to analyze critically all the information out there. The innovation forum is a great way to have these conversations and provide opportunities for all of us to share our reflections. Thank you for the conversation.

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What a great conversation! I think my brain is getting bigger because of it. :slight_smile:

Not to open up a whole other level of discussion, but it’s always seemed to me that a conversation on extrinsic motivation eventually connects to a conversation on grades. Talk about extrinsic motivation!

Grades is often the place where it drives home the point that where extrinsic motivation clearly breaks down is where the extrinsic motivator has lost its connection to the intrinsic action.