Last Wednesday I wrote about the problem of rewards to mixed reviews from the fans of PBS on Facebook. Some thought my perspective was reasonable--mostly because of personal experience with children in school settings where intrinsic motivation is almost favored by educators looking to cultivate a love of learning. Others thought my take was naive, impractical, and at worst, unfounded in scholarly research. For those readers who wondered if there are any documented grounds for leaving rewards behind, let me offer up these articles, studies and a little clarification.
Extrinsic rewards may help a child (or adult) cultivate interest and follow-through in a new skill, but these kinds of rewards may also damage or diminish the quality of the intrinsic motivation already naturally present. Our lack of faith in a child's built-in motivation to learn something new may cause us to limit our efforts to create environments and circumstances where innate interests can develop and thrive. Read this Stanford University study on undermining children's intrinsic motivation.
Rewards, especially when given in the form of praise, can distance a child from his most valuable resource in achieving success--an understanding of the efficacy of effort. Rewards and praise place a child's sensor for what's working outside herself--an effective tool if you want a docile child or an obedient employee--but the ability to access, monitor and employ personal effort will develop children who can succeed under pressure AND self-direct in the absence of visible incentives. Read this New York Magazine article highlighting the work of psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck.
Temperament has more impact on the effectiveness of rewards than the incentive itself. Alfie Kohn (whose ears must be ringing after this week in the comments at Facebook PBS) has well-documented research highlighting the role of rewards in motivating school children and employees. He concludes that responsiveness to rewards is most widely effective with populations that are highly motivated to start. In other words, if the thought of working on commission makes you cringe, all the incentive in the world is less likely to make bring your best effort to the task and help you actually succeed. Read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.
And one last word on rewards: Many commenters pointed out that the whole of our society is founded on rewards systems of one kind or another. Teachers issue grades. Employers cut paychecks. Parents dole out m-n-ms and gold stars. While I agree that this is how we've agreed as a nation to move each other forward, I believe real innovation, creativity and cultural shifts happen when there's time and space to discover the deeper motivations for not only what we do but how we want to do it. If we're not willing to build some reward-free zones where our children can experience the value of effort, free-thinking and internal motivation, I'm not convinced we'll be equipped to make the changes that are sure to come as bricks and mortar institutions adapt to an increasingly light and fast digital world.