The Concern with Extrinsic Motivators

For as long as I have been involved in the American Educational system (which turns out to be from age 5 on), we/the system have defended our (what I now know to be) antiquated structures surrounding motivation – extrinsic and consequence-based – with the idea that ‘that’s the way it is in the real world!’ Over the past 7 years of my own teaching career at alternative schools, I have developed a concern surrounding these structures based on two facts: The American Workplace is changing, and reinforcing extrinsic ‘consequence’-based system encourages “getting work done” versus cultivating intrinsic, autonomous, autotelic lifelong learners.

In a system that has college readiness as one of its explicit endgame goals, and where only 45% of people who start college finish, it is people that are more intrinsically motivated that will be successful. My premise, of course, expands beyond just college-success to a successful life (as defined by an individual) filled with high life-satisfaction. Conversely, people who have the habit of being externally (often specifically fear-of-consequence) motivated will find that habit detrimental to success. My interpretation of Montessori’s work over the past year that I have taught in a Montessori Secondary School seems to support this.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, author of what was known for a time as the ‘world’s largest happiness study,’ reported that “Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers…” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 141)

What I am observing in my current educational environment (A Montessori High School) leads me to believe that we are reinforcing habits of extrinsic motivation: If a students is not doing work we view the consequence system as an apt motivator. Those consequences are poor grades, calling parents, loss of privileges, etc. Take the consequence of calling the parent, for example: The parent will (presumably) take away privileges from the student at home, have a conversation (likely heated), etc until the work gets done. The hope, of course, is that the student will realize only one part of this situation – getting work done and being ‘responsible’ is important (though I would argue that in this sense ‘responsibility’ is most mostly a label and not authentic). Inversely, the hope is that the student will not come to realize the habit of having someone other than the self “make you do something.” The thought is that over time the positive outcome habit will win out over the consequence habit and the student will emerge autonomous.

Montessori cautioned about this very style of education: “Adolescents and young people almost right up to maturity are treated like babies… At fourteen or sixteen they are still subjected to the petty threat of ‘bad marks…’” She cautioned that students in a system like this would be “compelled to study as a ‘duty’ or necessity,’” as essentially to appease external forces and not for their own development. “And on these marks the future of the student depends. So study becomes a heavy and crushing load that burdens the young life instead of being felt as the privilege of initiation to the knowledge that is the pride of our civilization.” In essence, students who are formed by extrinsic motivators by measuring themselves against a ‘heavy’ workload will have a much more difficult time tasting the nectar of intrinsic learning (“the pride of our civilization”). Montessori continues to say that a life based on this extrinsic system is a “wretched life of endless penance, of futile renunciation of deepest aspirations!”

It is my view that every single time we use extrinsic/consequence-based methods of ‘motivation,’ we bypass the student’s inner sense of worth; we dishonor their growth into an autonomous adult. When we call parents and ‘tell on the student’ (which is what I imagine it feels like to an adolescent) we are telling the student that they are not capable. If done over a long enough period of time we have created a habit; it is my impression that the student is not learning the sense of responsibility that is the end goal, but conversely learning that consequences rule our lives. I feel that they get a sense that even a successful adult life is ruled by extrinsic motivators. In the modern workplace, this is no longer ubiquitously true (just look at how Google operates).

In contrast to a consequence-based system of “motivation” is one where we patiently and consistently appeal to the students themselves.

For success in life depends in every case on self-confidence and the knowledge of one’s own capacity and many-sided powers of adaptation. The consciousness of knowing how to make oneself useful, how to help mankind in many ways, fills the soul with noble confidence, with almost religious dignity. The feeling of independence must be bound to the power to be self sufficient, not a vague form of liberty deducted from the help afforded by the gratuitous benevolence of others.

The teacher to parent to student intervention fits the latter at best. At worst the student is subjected to feelings of emotional distress at having “let down the parents” or “disappointed them” and reversing that becomes the motivator of working on their “heavy load.” (A note: of course, it could happen that a call to a parent results in a very diplomatic and non-emotionally-charged encounter with their child at home – though I would sense that this is not often the case). However if we always work with the students in the belief that they can do the work by their internal desire to learn and see the world, we begin to guide them to free themselves of a threat-motivating system.

We must be careful that we are not merely “concerned… with anything but the preparation for a career…” And in that regard balance our attention with grades and transcript grooming (honors, AP, the ‘right’ classes) with attention to aiding the human to develop their sense of “power of the personality” – the autotelic human.

Recently, I agonized over having to call my student, Dylan’s, mom because I felt as if I was just reinforcing his normal cycle (I feel like he has made very little progress this year) so I decided on a compromise: I would have Dylan come in and after saying hello to his mom myself, I would hand to phone to Dylan to explain himself. As soon as I informed Dylan of my plan a fear mechanism within him responded and he said “no, no, no, no! Rachel already called my mom yesterday! She yelled at me all night; she knows I’m failing all my classes. That’s why I’m going to start doing my work.”

I responded: “Dylan, can I ask you a question? Does this work? I mean, when your mom gets mad at you, does it work for you to change?”

Dylan said “YES! That’s why I’m going to start doing my work!”

I suppose I don’t buy it. I think Dylan has learned what to say to buy himself a moment or two of reprieve. I have heard that line from Dylan as almost a mantra all semester. What I think the focus should be (and I feel like I have not been doing a good enough service here) is finding the material that truly offers a place for Dylan to use his intellect in exploring. Then maybe we’ll hear about Dylan (and students like him) talking about wanting to learn instead of just ‘doing my work.’


EndNote: Our team is experimenting this year with lighting the spark of self-motivation using several techniques, all revolving around encouraging students to not settle for just being average – to go above and beyond to create the life you want. We will begin the year (coming in August!) with a ‘Disorientation’ week for students, where they will be asked what their purpose for both school and life is, and then be grounded in an intensive study in the ‘roots’ of our alternative education methods, as well as in the more recent ideas put forth from books like Flow, Spark, The Power of Habit, Triggers … (the list goes on). This week will culminate in each student building a ‘Personal Plan’ for the year, using the ‘accountability’ measures suggested in the last two books mentioned. Needless to say, we will be writing about our findings!

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.
Montessori, M. (2007). From Childhood to Adolescence. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.

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