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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Over the years, both in school and growing up, rewards have been a part of accomplishment.  But, when do those rewards lose their flavor?  Some are motivated by a willingness to do the right thing, while others are motivated by what they might get in return for a job well done.  So, what should we be teaching students in the classroom?  Does doing the right thing on its own have rewards that last longer than a toy or material object?  Or, do we teach the material object is the end result and working for a material object creates more happiness and quicker results?  Answer?  There may be a place for both, but at different times in human development. 

There are plenty of adults that work for money.  There are plenty of adults that work for the joy of working, and there are those that work for both.  What message should we be sending kids in school?  Money, or joy and happiness?  I tend to think joy and happiness.   It has been my opinion and experience that extrinsic motivation such as play money, tokens, tickets or other prizes that are given to students after accomplishments are most effective at younger ages, before adolescence.  In males and females, adolescence begins around the age of 10 or 11.  It tends to end around the ages of 15 and 16.  This means that the stages of childhood, ages 1 through 9 are more likely to believe and be motivated in a different way because this age group still believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.  The older humans get, in most cases, the more they cognitively develop.  Teachers, administrators and parents have a responsibility to play to that development and create an environment that caters to it.


Between the ages of 10 and 16, students become more opinionated by the day, and in some cases have no fear of expressing their thoughts regardless of the audience.  This also means they can sniff out a childish idea a mile away.  Adolescents are more likely to make fun of toys as rewards than those in early childhood.  They want so desperately to be adults, but lack the mental/emotional, social and physical experience to accomplish this.  However, what teachers can provide for them are the ideas of how adults are rewarded and how it can shape their future success:  Pats on the back, eye contact, high fives, firm handshakes, and public recognition.  These are simple rewards for success that adults receive that can create lasting memories when a moment of good is recognized.  Diplomas, certificates, pictures, plaques, trophies, pins and other framed awards can be provided to this developmental group when accomplishments are made.  It allows students an opportunity to look and hold something of meaning and make a mental connection to why they received it.  Remember, in the end, it’s not the reward we should be teaching, it’s the deed that earned the reward.  If the reward happens to be more “adult” and mature, then the deed will be remembered and the deed will be shared with others.  The plaque may or may not be on the wall, the pin may or may not be on a shirt, the diploma may or may not be in a frame, but the deed will stay in the brain for a lifetime. 

Here Comes the Conflict:

This is tricky.  It also is dangerous to student development.  When a method of reward overlaps with the wrong developmental stage, you will have conflict.  This will occur with the person giving the reward and the one receiving it, end of story.  Imagine yourself right now as a middle school or high school student.  Think back to what you were interested in and what your friends were interested in.  Now imagine you helping a student who drops their books down the stairs.  You see this, follow the books tumbling down and help your fellow peer pick them up.  Typically a “thank you” is exchanged, but not always.  Now imagine a teacher seeing you do this good deed.  The teacher approaches you, and says; “Hi.  That was nice of you.  Now here you go for your good work.  A nice shiny quarter.  Have a nice day”.  Now imagine the look you would give that teacher at the end of the exchange.  Would you take that teacher seriously?  Would you think they were crazy?  What would you do with the quarter?  I’ve got a pretty good guess. 

We’ve all seen it, in movies, TV shows and in real life.  A kid does something good and the old neighbor gives the kids a meaningless gift.  The kid throws it down, throws it away, gives it to someone else or throws it back.  This is the disconnect that exists in school that must stop.  Now you have resentment between the student and teacher.  Now you have discontent.  Now you have a student who might not take you seriously as a teacher.  Now you might have a student who stops caring about your class.  Now you might have a student who stops doing their homework.  Now you have a student that doesn’t care.  All stemming from a wrong reward for the wrong developmental stage.  A child riding a tricycle might enjoy a shiny quarter, but adolescents won’t.  Remove poor rewards that are childish, for the wrong developmental stage and you will reduce the conflict.  Make sure to do it immediately, or the conflict will spread faster than you can imagine.  If you think that students will like any reward at any age, you’re wrong. 

Increase Intrinsic Motivation

I mentioned earlier, there are ways of increasing rewards that are more “adult” and mature.  Now we must teach students to live without the immediate reward.  Teaching this can create a more mature and happy human being, not only in the short term, but also in the long term.  If intrinsic motivation is not taught and students don’t learn to enjoy good work for the sake of good work, then a feeling of emptiness may exist.  A feeling that “something is missing and the good work is meaningless without something I like in return” will fester.  This drives some people mad.  But teaching students about how good deeds return to them in kind is a good discussion to have with students.  How do you teach this?  Just talk to them.  Talk to them like adults on the first day of school and every day after that.  Let them know how things can work out in the end.  Provide them with personal examples of when you did something nice for someone, received nothing in return immediately, but were happy later because of something else.  Tell them that the joy of helping was the reward, not the reward itself.  Don’t make up lies or stories to get the point across, just be honest.  Have students provide an example of when they did something nice for someone and received nothing in return.  Ask them how it made them feel right then, and how they felt a little later.  Allow them to reflect on the past and present.  In doing so, you may create a more mature young adult.  Remember, this is what adolescents want to be anyway.


Sean M. Brooks is a Health Education teacher at Punta Gorda Middle School in Punta Gorda, Florida. He advises a Conflict/Violence Prevention Focus Group of 70 plus students for PGMS.  Sean is also an Associate with Partners In Learning.

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