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Won’t Researcher Roland Fryer Ever Give Up On Trying To Prove Extrinsic Motivation Works Better Than The Intrinsic Kind?


Harvard researcher Roland Fryer seems to just not want to give up on proving the effectiveness of extrinsic motivation among students, even though all the money he’s spent has proven to be unsuccessful.

His latest failure was bribing kids with free cellphones in exchange for receiving daily “inspirational” messages that they would be quizzed about. Result — zero academic improvement.

As I wrote in The Washington Post after another of failed schemes (see Bribing students: Another ‘magical solution’ that doesn’t work):

When I see studies like Fryer’s, I wonder what kinds of academic gains would be realized if, instead of spending $166 per student on cash payouts, those funds were provided to teachers and schools to do more of what my colleagues often spend their own time and money doing (and what our administrators work overtime trying to squeeze school funds to pay for). Like:

* Having reluctant readers choose books of their own which we then purchase for them.

* Buying multiple copies of books students want to use in a student-led independent discussion group.

* Supplying all classrooms with a collection of high-interest books.

* Having a well-stocked school library and flexible librarian.

* Training teachers in effective, engaging literacy strategies, including free voluntary reading.

* Having counselors spend enormous amounts of time tracking down ways students can get needed eyeglasses, medical check-ups, and dental work done.

* Providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families to use for language development.

* Going on field trips to neighborhood libraries and other enriching destinations.

None of these kinds of efforts come with the baggage of extrinsic motivation programs.

The word “incentives” comes from incendere, which means “to kindle.” The dictionary says that “to kindle” means “to start a fire burning.” We need to imagine that it is the student, not the teacher, who starts that fire.

You can read about his other similar research attempts at:

“If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail” — Economists Go After Schools Again

Krashen On Bribing Students To Read

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. Thank-you. Just… thank-you for staying on this. You already know how I feel about bribes-for-learning, and it continues to break my heart a little each time I think about these efforts. Not that public schools aren’t *already* a Skinner box, but instead of trying to “embrace” extrinsic motivation, I keep looking for the efforts to explore new and better ways to support and allow intrinsic motivation to flourish.

    I’m amazed that just as some animal trainers are themselves beginning to shift toward a more intrinsic motivation approach, the gamification/extrinsic motivator proponents are shifting more toward treating students like animals. When you use behavioral mechanics, you get mechanical behavior. As a former teacher and now, as of this year, parent of a new public school teacher, I have tremendous empathy for classroom teachers. But exchanging long-term, sustainable success (for the learner) for short-term “engagement” is not a good and healthy call. At least not while other options exist, however slow and challenging those options are compared to the quick faux-engagement of an extrinsic reward program.

    School is already an operant conditioning environment… we should be trying to minimize the damage that causes, not amplify it.

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