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Why We Do What We Do

Posted October 02, 2012 in Community Blogs, Urbandale

A study was conducted in the 1990’s in which two groups of young children were given an opportunity to problem solve using blocks.  Placed in their groups and observed through a two-way mirror, children were initially observed actively interacting with the blocks before the “formal” study began.  Following this initial observation, one group was told they would receive a “reward” for completing a certain number of puzzles using the blocks.  The other group was invited to solve the same number of puzzles with the blocks just for the sake of creative problem solving with the blocks.  The two groups were then observed behind the two-way mirror and each was actively engaged in the problem solving process.  The first group was then given its reward, while the other group received nothing.  This process was repeated several times, each time with similar results.  However, upon observing the children during the times when no task or rewards were provided, an interesting result was reported.  The children in the “reward” group sat around, uninvolved with the blocks.  The second group, however, was still engaged in creative problem solving with the blocks.

Studies, similar to what I’ve described, have been conducted multiple times with groups ranging in age and task requirement.  Time after time, the same results emerged.  Once the reward was withheld from the group receiving the reward, their interest in and work on the task diminished significantly, while the group not receiving any reward continued interacting with the task.

The focus of these studies was on motivation.  Specifically, researchers wanted to determine the impact of external rewards on intrinsic motivation.  What they found time and time again is that external rewards actually demotivated people over time.

 In the book, Drive, author Daniel Pink shares multiple examples of how external rewards diminish “drive” in people and how when autonomy, mastery, and purpose exist in the task and environment, “drive” and results flourish.

Schools are fraught with external reward systems; a sticker for this, a pizza party for that, and a “grade” at the end of a quarter.  Given the results of the studies cited above, it might cause us to wonder whether our well-intended efforts to motivate students actually have the opposite effect and serve to demotivate students.  Or perhaps students are motivated just enough to earn the reward, but then lose interest afterward.  In an earlier blog I shared how in one school district student “joy” for learning began to decrease significantly following kindergarten.  Might a loss of intrinsic motivation be one of the factors in this decline?

Once again, I invite you to consider and weigh-in on this topic. When rewards (including grades) rather than learning become the goal, to what degree might our current system of education be contributing to this loss of joy in learning for students?  Does it have to be this way?

Next week I will share the power of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as conditions that unleash the intrinsic motivation with which we are all born.


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