Is Anything a Reward When Everything is a Reward?


Our modern world has been built upon a system of motivation built off of three main factors; survival, seeking of rewards, and the avoidance of punishment. The book 'Drive' by Daniel Pink seeks to understand what truly gets people going and doing and explores how we have been doing it all wrong.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation

Researchers conducted a study on preschoolers who enjoyed coloring. The first group was shown a certificate and asked if they wanted to draw in order to receive the reward. The second group received the rewards at the end of the drawing. The third group received no reward.

Two weeks later teachers set out paper and markers during free play. The preschoolers who received no reward or the unexpected reward drew just as much. The children who expected the reward showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing.

Let me remind you once again these are PRESCHOOLERS!

  • Extrinsic motivators like rewards, pay grades, etc thwart our intuitive natural interest in the things we enjoy. As well as leading to rushed work.
  • Extrinsic motivators can also be punishments like a dock of pay, being fired, or a clothespin being moved from green to yellow in front of the class.
  • Intrinsic motivation: comes from within, it is our natural tendency to seek out novely and challenges

Then why do we live in a world built off of Rewards?

  • It works in the short term.
  • We assume that work is not inherently enjoyable so we must coax people to do it.
  • We think putting a reward will help people work harder.

Why Rewards Hurt

  • Diminishes intrinsic motivation
    • Remember the preschoolers? They lost their natural want to color because they began to expect an ‘if-then’ reward.
  • Diminishes performance
    • workers paid 4, 40, and 400 rupees for the same work found that those paid the most fared the worst.
  • Crushes creativity
    • When we are competing for a reward we become fixed on finding the answer, we rush, and we lose our creative problem-solving skills, and this usually leads to slower problem-solving.
  • Crowds out good behavior
    • When we put rewards to good behavior, just like when we put it to subjects we are naturally interested in, we often lose that intrinsic desire to just do something good.
  • Encourages cheating and shortcuts
    • When we set goals for wealth, scores, or targets that provide large rewards for achievement we lose view of the bigger picture which often leads to a focus only on getting to the reward.
  • Becomes addictive
    • Rewards are addictive plain and simple. We get a rush of dopamine when we receive a reward and we come to expect this every time. Over time this reward is no longer a reward but an expectation.
  • Fosters short-term thinking
    • The especially tangible rewards like the ‘if-then’ reward limit the depth in which we think as we set our sights on what we can earn now instead of what can be achieved down the road.
Vector illustration on white background featuring evening, tired office man sleeping at working desk

Breaking the Mold

Extrinsic motivators have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, especially with the dawn of mass technology. In schools, teachers are in a constant battle to get their students to want to learn and grow, and we often resorted to incentives to help our students learn, but things have only seemed to worsen. So how do we go about actually breaking this? We look toward building our intrinsic motivators.

-Autonomy: it is in our basic nature to be curious and self-directed. We want to be able to act and participate with choice.

-Mastery: To truly be satisfied we need more than to just comply. When people find their flow, they have clear set goals that are not to hard or too easy and the satisfaction that comes from the intense focus comes from forgetting oneself in a function.

-Purpose: Words matter. People need to have a way to feel true satisfaction. We are built to follow our own voice in doing something that means something.

Putting it into Practice

The search institute in this video explores following a plan of REACH for helping student motivation, and talks about the dramatic decline of intrinsic motivation in students as they progress through school.

R: Relationships

  • Express care, support, expand possibilities
  • Build connections with students

E: Effort

  • Foster a growth mindset
  • Helps student understand that their intelligence is not fixed

A: Aspirations

  • A positive vision of who students want to become
  • Connect that ability to what students are doing now
  • “Think Forward, Act Now”

C: Cognition

  • Help students think about their thinking
  • Reactive side of our brain is often the natural reaction
  • Help students slow down and learn to ask “why am I thinking the way I am”

H: Heart

  • What are your students sparks
  • What gives your students meaning
  • What are your students’ truest values


  1. Hello! I think you have a great blog post! I enjoyed reading what you had to say about drive and motivation. I liked how you included a summary. I enjoyed how you explained why rewards would be bad. This was nicely done. The video that you found really ties into your post well. Are there any other lessons you could think of for motivation in your classroom? Great post!

    • I think a great way to start off the school year would be to introduce an inquiry-based project for students to take a lead on. This would be a very open-ended project that would start by asking my students to find something of interest in the class they are studying. So if I am teaching biology it could be as large as picking a plant or animal that they really like. This should set them up to work throughout the quarter on something that already has intrinsic motivation. I would then use this quarter project by tying in the smaller units into their own specific area of study, and having them create presentations, research, etc on it.

  2. Hey Melinda, I enjoyed your post. The REACH method was very interesting and insightful for connecting with the students and creating an intrinsic classroom. How can a teacher show how a student’s intelligence is not fixed within their classroom? I believe that once a student understands their growth, they will be more willing to learn in a classroom than one where they perceive a net-zero information/skill gain.

    • This is a great question, and one that I often ponder. Schools by nature are so fixated on the grades that students get, and after years of this students who have often gotten lower grades often have a feeling that they are not intelligent. To break this cycle I think it is important to first really get to know your students as individuals. If I have a student that I see really excel when they are asked to present, I am going to feed into that and help them develop this skill. I also think that breaking from your first grade is your final grade will help students realize that intelligence isn’t linked to how you perform the first time.

  3. Hey Melinda! Awesome blog post. I really liked where you explained why extrinsic, monetary motivators can be really detrimental for a students learning long term. Not only can it diminish creativity in students, but long term it can negatively impact their willingness to learn. I was wondering if you had any ideas where extrinsic motivation could be beneficial in a classroom? While students and teachers should strive to be more intrinsically motivated, do you think this way of thinking is always the most appropriate? Thanks!

    • I think extrinsic could be good in the classroom for small things, or when rewards are given that aren’t assumed to be given. It is important for students to be recognized for their work and for jobs well done. But first, it shouldn’t be expected by the students. This could look like a call or email to home talking about the work of a student that exceeded your expectations. It could be a piece of candy after your students present a hard-worked quarterly project. In these ways the students are getting a reward and that extrinsic motivation, but it isn’t expected and it adds as a boost and not a base line.

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