Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Surprising Science of Motivation

I recently stumbled across a fascinating video from TED (www.ted.com) about the well-established and thoroughly ignored science of motivation. And to my pleasant surprise, this morning I saw that at the same time, Larry Ferlazzo posted about this exact same video on his excellent Websites of the Day ESL/EFL teaching blog. Check out his post there - especially for the insightful comments by readers.

Anyway, about the TED video.

It seems like common sense - you offer a person a reward for doing a task, and his/her performance will improve. But in this case, common sense is (apparently) nonsense.

In this presentation from TED, Daniel Pink discusses the science of motivation in the context of business, but I think there is a strong relevance to teaching and learning as well. Basically, he presents research that demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that not only do extrinsic rewards (like cash) not improve performance on most tasks, they actually make performance worse. Yes, worse. The only arena where extrinsic rewards improve performance is on simple, straightforward tasks that do not require any creative or higher-order thinking. If your task requires that people think in order to accomplish it, offering an extrinsic reward will harm your results. Simply put, extrinsic rewards seem to kill creative thinking. Whoa.

In contrast, intrinsic rewards (such as pride in accomplishments) improve creative thinking and results. What happens when you offer an extrinsic reward is that it kills off any intrinsic reward that the activity previously held for the individual.

In the business world, extrinsic rewards are cash, stock options, or the like. In education, they're grades, "extra credit", points, etc. Given this, does anyone wonder why going to school seems to kill the inborn thirst to learn in far too many children? When learning becomes all about the grade, it deadens our native motivation to learn for the pure love of learning.

This video also makes me worried about the goals that Minnesota's Governor & Legislature have set for expanding the "performance pay" system for teachers. By offering increased extrinsic rewards for teachers, will we in fact be cheapening their passion and dedication to their craft?

I encourage everyone to watch the video and think deeply about what it means in the context of teaching and learning. How can we strengthen the intrinsic motivation to learn that our students bring to the classroom? How can we avoid the pitfalls of offering extrinsic rewards to teachers and learners?


Larry Ferlazzo said...


Thanks for your insightful comments both on your blog and in your comment over at mine.

Unfortunately, Ed. Sec. Duncan's "Race To The Top" is pushing our state to more closely evaluate teachers by test score results, too. The future does not look bright.


MLC Trainer said...

Adult ESL students don't receive grades and they are the most motivated students I've ever taught.

Susan WB said...

Hi Burgen ("MLC Trainer"), thanks for leaving a comment!

I agree - the adult ESL students I work with are powerfully engaged in their learning. I don't doubt it does have something to do with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

And in response to Larry, I think I could be in favor of "pay for performance" if performance were better measured - such as by teacher engagement in the school/program, creative/inventive lesson planning, taking initiative to solve problems, making a real human connection with students, etc. But when "pay for performance" is just about scores on standardized test - yikes!