Friday, April 23, 2010


Over the past few days my youngest son (age 6) has been helping my brother lay a brick patio at our house. My brother was very patient with my son and showed him how to make sure everything was in place so they could lay the brick correctly. I watched as my brother corrected my son in some of the techniques as they were working and I was proud to see that my son paid attention and did it correctly. He was so proud that he could lay the bricks that he asked me to come over and he taught me how to lay the bricks. He explained it just like my brother had explained it to him, but he also added what he had learned by doing the task. It was a great learning experience.

I have been reading a lot about motivation and how to motivate people. According to Daniel Pink (in his book Drive), the old way of motivating people by using “carrots or sticks” simply does not work. True motivation must be something that is intrinsic in nature, not something that someone does because they want a prize or do not want a negative consequence. Research is pretty clear that extrinsic motivators like prizes and punishment do not work over the long haul. Incentives or punishments may increase motivation for a short period of time, but over time, motivation will actually decrease. I have read in the news recently that schools are paying students to get good grades or to read a certain amount of books. This may work in the very short term, but research suggests that student’s “productivity” (as measured by grades or amount of books read) will decrease below the original level if these types of incentives are used. I can see where these incentives may be useful to start a child on a path of better achievement, but the school system better figure out a way to intrinsically motivate the student after a short time or the entire plan will backfire. So, how can the school systems motivate students? There are numerous ways, but I want to discuss one simple way: allowing students to teach.

One of the best ways to motivate students is to have them become “experts’ at something and have them teach. I witnessed this phenomenon with my son. Once he did a task a few times (which was more than I had ever done the task), he became an “expert” especially in relation to my knowledge. He then parlayed that knowledge to teaching me. In other words, he now has a detailed knowledge of how to do a task, he has taught the task, and he has learned the task. I hope that schools can put students in situations where they can become experts at a topic and teach other students/adults what they have learned. In schools where this happens, motivation is not a problem and no one has to pay a student a thing to do well in school.

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