Extrinsic vs Intrisic

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Recently I’ve been seeing articles centering around the topic of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  I know I’ve touched on this topic before, but I thought I’d revisit this subject again because there is always so much to discuss.  Please join in the conversation as long as you keep it respectful and are aware of the community you are conversing with.  And as always, like and share! So let’s start!  

When I think of ways to motivate young children the things that usually pop into my mind are the times when I taught at schools really obsessed with reward systems.  Whatever research or boxed curriculum the district bought into would always push the great benefits of external rewards and how great they were for getting children to comply and how beneficial to their learning these rewards were.  Stickers, charts with more stickers, candy even and yes, sometimes bigger rewards, such as  stuffed animals or small games could be earned through the reward systems.  Of course, children had to follow all the rules and make sure the teacher was aware of how “on-task” they were in order to earn these special rewards.  Those children that did not get rewards usually felt left out, rejected and invisible.  Not every child that did not get a reward was “off-task” or not following directions.  These poor souls just weren’t noticed by the teacher and of course if they happened to be introverts, well, they might as well have been completely invisible.  Rewards seemed to lean towards extroverts rather than introverts.  And that very special reward only had short term effects on those students lucky enough to gain those special treats.  Of course, the very next week the charts and the great motivational props started all over again.  Hmmm…,I’m not really sure how beneficial to children’s learning all these wonderful rewards were.  To me, it seemed pretty superficial and not long lasting at all. The group of children as a whole never seemed to really show any educational benefits to rewards and I will say that they never really showed any true long-term improvements in behaviors either.

Rewards, to me, seemed far too superficial and it went along quite nicely with commercialism.  We have seen how stores stocked up on Christmas items before Halloween had graced us with its presence.  Well, reward systems are similar in how they are often marketed by administrators, not simply the companies that promote and sell these boxed specials. Districts often buy into these commercialized behavior programs in an effort to convince their teaching staff that reward systems designed to externally motivate will help their students learn better, all behave the same and very well, and will encourage the children to follow each other’s lead in staying “on task” and getting their work finished in a proper and productive way.  Of course, the teachers still have to know how to use the positive guidance techniques they’ve trained for and used in their teaching, but the reward systems will surely make the job easier and more fun for the children.  Realy?  Fun for the children? Make the job easier?  What!? 

Again, the way I perceived these external reward systems was, “wow, we have to teach the children to expect a reward for all the hard work they do instead of teaching them all the human feelings that accompany working hard and reaping the benefits of gaining knowledge to build onto”.  Extrinsic motivation is short term.  In my opinion and years of experience, reward systems have never helped children to gain knowledge more easily.  For a moment a child may be happy for that sticker, stamp or piece of candy, but the effects are over before the day ends.  And really, these rewards are not connected to learning information.  Rewards are connected to training a child to behave in a certain way that appears to be the “right” way to act when learning.  These external motivators are not designed to foster learning.  They are not designed to tap into children’s knowledge and expand upon it.  These rewards are not designed for educational benefits, they are simply designed to train a child to behave in a certain way in a particular moment or to do something in a limited way just to meet the end goal.  And let’s not forget, to make teaching easier.  I never found teaching to be easier with external rewards.  I found the rewards system got in the way of my teaching and student’s learning. (Please do not confuse reward systems with visual cueing systems for children with special needs.  They are two very different subjects.)

Ah, but the reward system is fun for kids!  Again, commercialism seems to have seeped into our schools so effortlessly.  Wow, let’s all eat food coloring and sugar because it’s fun!  All these shiny, colorful treats are for kids!  They can have fun learning while earning fabulous treats and prizes!  When we think of kids we think of candy, stickers, toys and lots of bright colors!  Of course, these externally motivated reward systems are designed for children and they are appropriate for children.  Really?  I don’t think so.  When educators buy into commercialism for the classroom, they are pushing this idea that superficial things are appropriate and natural for children.  These systems are not appropriate or natural for children.  These are simply external short-term rewards to get children to comply with whatever is on the agenda for that day or week. If we want children to learn and be successful, we must take away the unnecessary propaganda and commercialism.  Teaching children for the long-term means children must learn how to tap into their internal motivation.  Intrinsic rewards outway by far any external rewards.  Now that doesn’t mean that children can’t earn an external reward now and then, but it really should not be a daily part of a child’s life either at school or home.

Intrinsic rewards are those wonderful feelings and moments when children have persisted in building and finally constructed something they really wanted to.  The perplexing, frustrating, challenging, happy, joyous and true excitement that only comes from the time, effort and interest it takes to accomplish such tasks.  When a three or four-year-old child really wants to understand how to spell their name and keeps watching, asking and practicing with peers and adult support.  When the child finally is able to print out his/her name that feeling of excitement and accomplishment only came from the internal motivation and desire to understand a skill and concept that have far deeper meaning than just spelling a name. Tears may have been shed in frustration and were wiped away when an empathetic peer consoled this child’s efforts.  The frustrations and sadness experienced were only briefly present before that sense of accomplishment filled their little hearts. Through these connected experiences the child has tapped into literacy, fine motor development, communication, listening, and observing to mention just a few skills required for this accomplishment. The positive feelings from this success will now travel with this child through every other goal she/ he decides to tackle.  I must make clear that when there is too much pressure from both teachers and parents for the child to write their own name, that too takes away from the intrinsic motivation and falls into a category of negative pressure that children really don’t need to deal with.  Life has a way of imparting pressure on even the youngest without us adults choosing to add more to  their little plates.  So let’s all be thankful and respectful of young children as they reach out and grab onto opportunities to gain an understanding of the world we live in.

Intrinsic motivation lasts for years and opens the pathways for learning.  When children have internal interest and desire to understand concepts presented to them in school or in life,in general, the learning that is gained cannot be compared to the short term effects of external rewards.  Let’s face it, reward systems were designed for adults as a way to make working with or raising children, seem easier.  However, we have to remember that it is in part how we the adults perceive teaching or raising children that make it easier or more difficult.  Intrinsic motivation enables children to become partners in learning and allows us, adults, to not only continue being guides and supports but partners in learning as well.  Children are people too, and we never stop learning.  So if we look at children as our partners in education rather than empty sponges, which they are not, the children then are not the only ones reaping the benefits of being internally motivated to understand, experiment and construct.

Why not keep external rewards for birthday parties or for the culminating event after children have worked hard on projects and are internally proud of their accomplishments.  That way learning returns to being natural for children and the rewards are kept as just that and given a place only at the end of all the hard work. 

Having just passed the Thanksgiving season, let’s continue to think of ways to incite intrinsic motivation in the children we teach and with the people we interact with each day.  Maybe we can continue to then be thankful for all that we have.

Enjoy this special time of the year! 🙂

Heidi Scott, BA & MIT

The Marigold School of Early Learning!  Preschool Designed Specifically for children ages three to five! 🙂

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