Voices in Education

Letting Talent Flow
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 10, number 2). Copyright 1994 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

A psychologist studying Head Start classrooms in the late 1960s noticed that the use of rewards by teachers seemed to have a perplexing, contradictory effect. In some classrooms, children were given treats to encourage them to play with learning games. The strategy worked. But when the treats were no longer available, the kids lost interest in the games. In other classrooms where no rewards were used, the children showed no such loss of interest in the very same games.

The psychologist, Mark Lepper of Stanford University, then designed a study in which one group of preschoolers were told they would get a beautiful certificate with a gold star as a reward for drawing a picture with colored markers. A control group of children got no prize. Lepper observed the children's play a week later and found that the kids in the first group were less interested in drawing with markers than the control group. In fact, their interest in drawing was lower than it had been before the reward was offered.

This surprising effect of rewards—that they can undermine children's intrinsic motivation, that is, the child's innate enjoyment of and interest in the activity being rewarded—has been documented and reproduced in dozens of controlled studies since the early 1970s. The research shows that rewards affect young children, adolescents, and adults in much the same way: the greater the incentive, the larger the negative effect on intrinsic motivation. Kenneth McGraw of the University of Mississippi surveyed the research and concluded that incentives can even impair performance when the solution to the task is not immediately obvious and requires creative, open-ended thinking.

Don't Go for the Gold

In spite of these well-established research findings, educators and parents continue to dream up new ways of rewarding students to make them want to learn: by giving them gold stars for completing their homework, candy for reading books, money for making the honor roll, new cars for getting into college, and, of course, grades. The reason is that these external motivators do work—they often produce, in the short term at least, the behavior that adults want to promote in young people. What adults usually fail to consider is the long-term effects of such practices.

Alfie Kohn summarizes almost thirty years of research and practice on rewards and motivation in his recent book, Punished by Rewards. Kohn argues that we should not reward children for doing things we want them to enjoy doing for their own sake. "I'm not that concerned about using positive reinforcement for potty-training a toddler," he says, "because we are not trying to instill a lifelong love of defecation. But the use of rewards for reading, writing, drawing, or acting responsibly and generously is case for concern, because these things could be intrinsically motivating. Extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for something we want children to want to do."

Not everyone agrees with Kohn. Paul Chance, a writer and former high school teacher, argues that extrinsic rewards are most likely to hurt motivation when the student's initial level of interest in the subject is very high and when the rewards are held out in advance as incentives. While Kohn condemns almost all uses of rewards, Chance, citing the same research, concludes that rewards giving information on the quality of performance are helpful. "When used to convey to people a sense of appreciation for work well done," Chance says, "[rewards] will tend to be experienced informationally and will maintain or enhance intrinsic motivation."

In the end, the differences between Kohn's and Chance's positions may be largely semantic. What Chance calls "informational" rewards may in practice be very much like what Kohn simply calls talking to kids about their work and encouraging them to find pleasure in it. Both writers advise parents and teachers to avoid using rewards as incentives, to avoid creating competition between students, to set high standards for performance, and to help children find their own inner reasons for wanting to learn.

Why Kids Give Up

More recent research on motivation has focused on identifying the specific conditions in classrooms and families that allow some students to succeed while others, considered equally promising at a young age, give up. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and his colleagues at the University of Chicago conducted a five-year longitudinal study of more than 200 students at Oak Park-River Forest and Lyons Township high schools in Illinois. All of the students were identified by teachers as having shown special promise or ability in one or more academic or artistic areas as they entered high school. The researchers followed the students closely through their daily activities by means of "beeper," which enabled the subjects to respond immediately to questions about their thoughts and emotions in school and at home.

The promising students in this study reported surprisingly low levels of interest and motivation in their classes. Three-fourths of the time, they did not want to be doing what they were forced to do in class. The researchers blame this condition on the general failure of schools to cultivate "extended and transforming relationships" between teachers and students and to promote "The cultivation of passionate interest as a primary educational goal." The one school setting in which students reported both high volition (wanting to do what they were doing) and high attention was extracurriculars. Obligatory classes, in contrast, depressed the students' sense of their own skill and most other indicators of psychological well-being.

Csikszentmihaly approaches the problem of motivation through the concept of "flow"—the mental state in which one is so completely absorbed in an activity that one loses track of time and is unaware of fatigue. "It is what we feel when we read a well-crafted novel or play a good game of squash or take part in a stimulating conversation," he and his colleagues say in Talented Teenagers, a recent book about the Chicago high school study. Flow happens when a person enjoys what she is doing for its own sake; it is thus another way of describing intrinsic motivation.

The authors argue that flow usually occurs when there are clear goals and when the person receives immediate and unambiguous feedback on her performance. Sports, games, and artistic and religious pursuits are common sources of flow. In most classrooms, the authors report, people don't seem to know the purpose of their activities, and it takes them a long time to find out how well they are doing.

Balancing the Flow

Flow usually begins when one takes on challenges that are just at or above one's skills. When challenges and skills are in balance, the activity becomes its own reward. But all too often, what teenagers experience in school is anxiety over challenges that are too hard or boredom with work that is too easy. They become increasingly alienated from their talent because using it is no longer fun.

The importance of maintaining a critical balance between challenge and skill is reflected in the comments of students in the Chicago high school study. Asked to describe when he most enjoyed drawing, one student said, "When I know I've tried really hard and it's gone the way I wanted it to. It may start out bad, but if you keep at it then it just gets better, maybe better than you thought it would be."

A math student described a similar state: "I like math most when there is a hard problem and I can figure it out. When it's really hard at first and then I look at it and see the light—that's when I like it." The researchers point out that these findings shouldn't really surprise us: everyone tends to describe the most enjoyable experiences in life in terms of tension between opportunities for action and capacity to act. "A person does not get really involved in a tennis game unless skills are stretched." They note.

Though some adults see adolescents as lazy, undisciplined, and defiant, the Chicago researchers were struck by the students' eagerness to accept challenges and overcome obstacles when the problems were interesting and the necessary skills were within their reach. When teachers took their abilities seriously, the students responded willingly.

Csikszentmihaly takes a middle-of-the-road position in the argument over intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, concluding that both are important for the sustained development of talent. In particular, he finds that students with talent in the arts have high intrinsic motivation but need the added encouragement of knowing that the outside world values their efforts. Students with talent in the "hard" domains of science and math tend to need more intrinsic motivation—in part because teachers and parents have assumed that serious learning in these subjects cannot be enjoyable.

The researchers identified three practices that help teachers encourage flow in their classes and thereby support the development of students' talents. First, teachers should "never stop nurturing their own interest." They should spend time outside class pursuing the practice of writing, music, math, or whatever attracted them to the field in the first place.

Second, good teachers "pay attention to conditions that help students experience intrinsic rewards." That is, they minimize the impact of competition, grades, prizes, scholarships. Needless rules, and bureaucratic procedures that tend to undermine students' inherent enjoyment of learning.

Finally, successful teachers "constantly read the shifting needs of learners." This means that teachers truly must know their students instead of relying on a simplistic formula for success. Good teachers move between moments of intervention and withdrawal, critique and encouragement, always gauging the effects of their attention on each student.

The Risks of Heterogeneity

Researchers have identified early adolescence as a critical period in which many students develop maladaptive patterns of achievement. The loss of confidence that often emerges in the middle grades has been linked to the greater prominence of grades, tougher grading policies, and more public evaluation of the correctness of students' work. This erosion of confidence an, therefore, of effort may be most severe in classrooms with a wide range of ability levels. Yet schools are moving toward such heterogeneous classes because of the growing recognition of the harmful effects of tracking.

Douglas Mac Iver of Johns Hopkins University and David Reuman of Trinity College argue that it is especially important for teachers in heterogeneous classes to alter traditional grading practices to take into account students' starting points and to set specific, quantitative goals for each student. The idea is to create individual goals that are both challenging and reachable.

Mac Iver and Reuman studied two programs in which alternative grading systems were field tested: the Incentives for Improvement Program in several Baltimore middle schools, and the Challenge Program at Windham High School in Willimantic, Connecticut. Both systems use individual students' average recent performances as the standard to beat and give students clear feedback showing their performance levels in relation to various goals.

The Windham Challenge Program was specifically designed to help teachers at the high school eliminate low-track science and social studies courses and replace them with heterogeneous advanced-level classes. Teams of teachers who have different sections of the same course serve as that course's standard-setters, exam-developers, and graders. Teachers take turns grading exams, so each student's grade results from evaluations by several different teachers.

Teachers who work alone in traditional grading systems, the researchers point out, have great leeway in setting standards for their students. The students then expend much effort trying to "wear the teacher down" to negotiate lesser demands. The resulting treaties and bargains lower standards but keep the peace. This battle is most intense where students face a challenging curriculum in heterogeneous classes.

External standard-setting and assessment allow teachers to function more like coaches, according to MacIver and Reuman. Coaches seldom have to negotiate standards with players because players face frequent external tests and realize that there is no point in pressuring the coach to lower standards and lessen demands during training and practice. Athletes may grumble about how hard the work is, but they still cooperate with the coach's agenda.

No Apple Polishers, Please

Just as it is helpful to have frequent external assessments, say Mac Iver and Reuman, it is good to have external graders because of what they call "the taboo against brownnosers." In most classrooms, when a student tries to make a close personal connection with the teacher, the other kids get suspicious. The resulting student norms make it cool to appear bored in class and to cooperate only grudgingly with the teacher's agenda. One way to weaken the taboo is to redistribute grading tasks to other teachers.

Preliminary findings from the Windham study show that the program has been highly successful in combating anti-academic norms. Students were significantly less likely than those in a control group to report lowering their effort to fit in better with friends, or to think classmates would make fun of them for doing well in class or asking questions. The program also had a positive effect on peer support for achievement.

The program seems to have had no effect on actual achievement, however, judged by standardized test scores. The researchers see this as a positive result: "Heterogeneously grouped students are achieving as well as tracked students and suffering none of tracking's stigmatizing social effects."

One program that has pioneered classroom techniques both for non-graded cooperative learning and for creating a more caring and mutually responsible school community if the child Development Project (CDP) in Oakland, California. CDP teachers receive training in classroom management and discipline techniques that reject traditional carrot-and-stick strategies. Students serve as models through a buddy program that pairs older and younger children for outings and tutoring and through community service projects.

Ultimately, what research tells educators about motivation is little more than what good teachers have known about children and schools for a long time. Helping students develop their talents and skills is hardly an exact science, a matter of fine-tuning the grading curve. Nor is it simply a matter of banning all incentives. "Motivation," John Nicholls and Susan Hazzard write in Education as Adventure, "[can] not be sharply separated from learning, from specific aspects of the curriculum, or from the social life of the school." Its secrets lie in the complex web of the relationships that develop between students and teachers who care deeply about them.

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