Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation is focused on business, but it can teach us a lot about motivation in the classroom as well. In the classroom, we often think of motivation and incentives as one and the same, but they aren’t. Incentives are something we offer in exchange for a job completed, motivation is internal. Motivation must be self-directed. We can’t hand a student motivation; but we can hand them an incentive.

What does this mean for the classroom? As a librarian, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of incentives is the reading incentive program. A few years ago I read a study that said when we offer incentives for reading we end up with fat kids who don’t like to read. Why did they say that? Because incentive programs are a carrot on a stick; when the individual being offered the incentive reaches their goal, they get the carrot, but there’s no reason for them to continue to do the job after that. When you offer kids incentives to read, you teach them to work toward an incentive, rather than to read for its own sake.

In the classroom we think about teaching skills, but ultimately what we want to do is teach students to succeed in our society. We want them to have the cognitive and problem solving skills to be successful in whatever field they choose to pursue. Pink points out two things that I believe are critical this process: 1) incentives work on mechanical, follow-the-directions, tasks. They do not work on tasks that require critical thinking. 2) That the key to success is intrinsic motivation, the desire to do a good job because a good job is what one wants to do.

I think we can learn a lot from this approach. Incentives aren’t bad, they have value, but there’s a time and a place for them, and it’s not when we’re trying to get kids to learn.

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