The Mysteries of Motivation

I recently read a CBC news article about a school that has decided to discontinue the practice of rewarding high grades and athletic achievement with certificates and ceremonies.

This decision was based on the work of Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

According to Kohn, rewards only motivate students to earn rewards, not to become engaged in the act of learning.

Dan Pink, in his book Drive, summarizes much recent (and no so recent) research and writing that also supports this idea. He concludes that the three main  things that motivate people are Autonomy, Mastery, and and sense of Purpose – not rewards.

Both authors find that offering rewards actually reduce motivation to engage in a task.

So I think of my students, and discover examples that support this.

For instance, one recorder student, who also happens to be my daughter (which is why I know about her school work too), when asked if she would like to participate in special workshop, masterclass, or Institute, always responds with a resoundingly enthusiastic. “Yes! When? What do I need to prepare? Will it be challenging? Good!”

Yet when it comes to her school work, she is happy to do the bare minimum to get by and has no interest in any extra enrichment activities. She takes the “easy” classes to get the highest mark she can for her GPA, not because she is interested in the subject.

What’s the difference? The feedback she get from her music activities helps her to increase her mastery of the music and the instrument in a way that is immediately apparent. No grades, just a personal sense of “Yes, I can do this better,” followed by an opportunity to try it immediately and see that it works. The feedback she gets from school is in the form of a letter grade or a percentage mark, often many weeks after she has completed the assignment. No chance to change anything based on the feedback,  it’s too late for that. Just a mark that gets compared to all the other marks.

This student has never been on the honour roll or received an academic award at school, yet every time she auditions for a special music program she is accepted, and every time she plays in a festival she is awarded one or more scholarships. She attends school to earn marks, and she attends music festival for performance experience  and feedback from other musicians.

So if a school can create a non judgmental reward free environment to motivate learning in the same way that I have managed to create such an environment for this students’ music learning, I would think it would have similar results. I applaud the school in the CBC article for taking this first step.