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My Thoughts On A Very Intriguing Video On Motivation & Incentives


Daniel Pink is the author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. It’s a book aimed at the business community, though I know a lot of people in education have been reading it. My copy has been sitting on my nightstand for quite a while.

However, earlier today I saw that he had given a TED Talk “On The Surprising Science of Motivation.” (see The Best Teacher Resources For “TED Talks” to learn more about these events). It looked like an interesting title, so I checked it out, and was glad I did.

It’s eighteen minutes long, and I’d encourage you to look at it. He, again, is aiming his talk towards business, but it’s very applicable to schools.

He cites a lot of research debunking the effectiveness of extrinsic rewards on motivation. This isn’t news to the many of us whom have read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book Punished By Rewards. However, he seems to provide a slightly more nuanced critique.

Pink basically says (at least, this is my interpretation — please leave a comment if you think my summary is incorrect) that extrinsic rewards do work — for mechanical work that doesn’t require much higher-order thinking.  But he says research says that it will not work for anything that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity.

This analysis mirrors my own experience in the classroom.  In Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”? I shared the challenges I faced last year in using extrinsic motivation to get students into a new pattern of behavior, and then moving them back toward intrinsic motivation. Using “points” was definitely effective in getting the class under control. They received them for being focused and doing their work.

However, I didn’t think students started doing their highest quality work until they were “weaned” off the point system and began to gain what Pink calls “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” Pink says that those are the three essential elements in generating higher-order thinking skills.

I’d be interested in hearing comments after you watch the video.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry,

    Not only does this video have plenty to do with getting the best out of our students, but also with how to get the most from our teachers as well.

    For some reason in the USA, we seem to have the notion that if we can offer better incentives the teaching will improve.

    I agree with Daniel Pink. Teaching won’t necessarily improve with better incentives. Teaching will improve with more teacher autonomy, but for the past 50 years we have worked to take more and more decision making away from the teachers rather than the other way around.

    I want to see an entire year of freedom for teachers to unleash their creativity in the classroom, free from standardized testing requirements and outcomes assessment. Let’s just see what teachers can do on their own for a year.

    I know that’s not likely to happen, so why not experiment with even a 20% rule like Google uses. For 1.5 hours every day, or maybe one entire day every week, each teacher gets to use the time however they like as long as it is safe and beneficial for the kids.

    In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt wrote about taking entire class sessions with his high school students all sprawled out on the floor taking naps. That’s the sort of “do whatever you like” that I’m talking about. If teachers felt so much in command that they could safely tell their students it’s ok to take a nap, I think we’d see amazing education reform in this country.

    But as it is now, schools are run by managers, with incentive plans… and big ole’ sticks for those who don’t measure up.

  2. Larry—Good catch.

    I watched the video today as well and drafted up a post set to be published tomorrow. You beat me to the punch.

    Have you seen Ken Robinson’s TED talk?

  3. I have always felt that, while extrinsic rewards can achieve short-term results, for a lasting effect, motivation must come from within. The challenge to a teacher is to make the task at hand so interesting that the desire to accomplish it springs internally. Most topics can become interesting when one learns enough about them, but the real challenge to teaching is to get over this initial barrier – like the energy of activation required for a chemical reaction to begin.

  4. Thanks for this post, Larry. I found the TED video very interesting and felt that it reflected some of my experiences in UK schools.

    I have taught for fifteen years in secondary schools, often working with students with behaviour difficulties. ‘Target’ or ‘Points’ systems can and do make a difference with many students, but only for a short time and for limited areas of change/improvement. These approaches are a fairly blunt instrument.

    If we want our students to achieve higher goals, giving them the chance to work autonomously leads to better results in my experience. However, part of the role of the teacher is to judge when a student is ready to take on this level of self-direction.

    It would be interesting to see if any teachers or schools have followed organisations like Google and the others mentioned in the video, and given students ’20 per cent time’ – time to work on their own projects.

    Come to think of it… it would be even more interesting to try it in my classroom when we start the new academic year in a week’s time.

    Thanks for starting the conversation.


  5. It is a fairly well held truth in psychology that if an extrinsic reward is given to someone for a task that they find intrinsically rewarding it will reduce the persons intrinsic motivation to perform that task.

    The trick for applying this in the classroom is identifying which students are intrinsically motivated by certain tasks and which students need extrinsic motivation.

    For instance, take student A that we will call Alfred. Alfred loves Art. Alfred will never need money or good grades to motivate him to draw. Giving Alfred money or any other extrinsic reward will only diminish the intrinsic rewards Alfred already receives from drawing.

    Student B, Bill, on the other hand hates Art. Bill receives no intrinsic reward from drawing and therefore will never draw on his own accord. Bill needs extrinsic rewards to motivate him in Art class. It is up to instructors to figure out who Alfred and who Bill is in their classrooms because it would be a shame to offer Alfred an extrinsic reward for a task that he already loves; however, it is essential that Bill be offered an extrinsic reward or else he will never perform the tasks needed to succeed in Art.

    This is easily explained in theory, but in practice it becomes very difficult. I would be interested in hearing how other instructors have addressed this problem.

    • Wade,

      What complicates things even more is when Bill is receiving extrinsic rewards to do something that he hates and Alfred receives none for doing something that he loves. Alfred thinks he’s getting the shaft in this situation.

      I’m more inclined to agree with Jim Fay who suggests that it’s ok for students to be better at some things than others, perhaps even not succeed at all in some things. But we tend to punish teachers (or at least think they aren’t doing their job) when not all of their students succeed. What would happen if we took the pressure off of kids to be successful in everything, and simply encourage them to work hard on the things that interest them.

  6. Overjustification Effect is the theory that goes along with the example I provided above.

    According to Wikipedia (and from what I can remember from the few psychology classes I took):

    “The overjustification effect occurs when an external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task…..When this happens, people pay more attention to the incentive, and less attention to the enjoyment and satisfaction that they receive from performing the activity. The overall effect is a shift in motivation to extrinsic factors and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation.

    I hope this helps more.

  7. I think Wade is on to something.

    I have found that my students work better if I meet their needs and then differentiate around their needs. For example, I noticed that some of my students have difficulty sitting still so I have them do their work on the board or on chart paper. I’ve noticed some kids have a need to be noticed so I give them opportunities to be noticed in a positive way. These are just some of the things I do.

    I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the semester observing my students to determine their needs. I also ask them what they like doing and how they like doing it. Then I try to differentiate instruction and evaluation to meet those needs. Yes, sometimes my classroom looks and sounds like a three ring circus but as one student told me one day when I commented on this “But Miss, circuses are fun”

    I also remind my students that I have certain needs too that I would like met so our class is a give and take situation.
    Most off the time this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. That’s when I tell myself tomorrow is another day. I try not to dwell on those classes that are disasters. I’m not really a fan of wild three ring circuses.

    So I guess what Pink says about external motivations holds true in the classroom too. The challenge is to find what a students needs are and try to meet them so the student is willing to engage.

  8. Larry,

    You beat me to the punch as well! I just watched this video yesterday on TED and was gearing up to blog about it later this week. 🙂

    I agree with Bill who discusses the implications for teachers. Here in MN the state is moving more and more towards “pay for performance” for teachers – that is, teachers whose students perform well get paid more. Sounds good in theory (as Daniel Pink says in his TED talk) but in actuality may be a creativity killer. Good teachers are intrinsically motivated to serve children with every ounce of energy and talent they have; give these people extrinsic rewards and you cheapen their passion and dedication to their craft. If teachers lived in a ROWE (“Results Only Work Environment”), where they truly had Autonomy and could strive for continual improvement (Mastery) as defined by the Purpose of nurturing smart, critical thinkers with real-world skills, we would allow teachers AND students to shine.

  9. I’ve been reading all of your posts regarding intrinsic/extrinsic, rewards/bribing, etc. My child’s school has bought the data portion of PBIS and is currently on the fast track to adopting the rewards/token/incentives/gotcha being good piece. I am trying to inform parents AND THE TEACHERS of the decisions being made and the implications of a long -term, systemic application of external rewards building-wide. Thank you for the information you provide here!

  10. Pingback: Student Motivation: Practitioner’s Perspective

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