Rethink Carrots and Sticks

Learner Engagement Part 1 (of 5)

I have been a student of adolescent literacy for almost 20 years–dedicated to reading about the science behind what motivates and engages our youth in literacy and learning, specifically looking at how we might shift the identities of students who struggle with learning and do not see themselves as scholars. I have had the privilege to stand on the shoulders of many researchers and practitioners I admire including John T. Guthrie, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Kylene Beers, Irene Fountas, Gay su Pinnell, Richard Allington, Peter Johnston, Gay Ivey, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, John Hattie, Alfie Kohn, Robert Marzano, and Michael Fullan to name just a few. I have also turned to other fields to learn more and have been influenced heavily by Daniel Pink and Patrick Lencioni.

Much of what I have learned and continue to learn has flown in the face of my intuition. Sometimes what my gut tells me I should do has actually not worked and in some cases may have been harmful to a student’s engagement in learning. The next series of monthly blog posts will be dedicated to five important lessons I have learned through my own reading, learning, researching, and application with adolescents in my classroom and as I have worked alongside colleagues and their classrooms. These five lessons include:

    1. 1. Learners aren’t as motivated by carrots and sticks as we might think they are.
    1. 2. We need to release control to our learners by elevating their voice and giving choice.
    1. 3. Reading is social. . .even for introverts.
    1. 4. Learners (of all ages) can’t until they think they can. Self-efficacy matters.
    1. 5. And, to be authentically engaged in the learning, we have to have a purpose and an interest for what we are about to read.

This month, let’s explore the first lesson: Rethink Carrots and Sticks!

Why do we use them? When do they work? When don’t they?
In Daniel Pink’s 2010 book Drive, we are reminded that behavioral science has taught us that in order to do something we need a reward (a carrot), or to not do something we need a deterrent (a stick). Pink calls these “if-then” motivators as in “If you do this, then you get that.” The science says this really only works for simple tasks but not for complex and creative tasks. Yet in schools we tend to use the “if-then” motivators for nearly everything. Pink tells us that rewards like this work only when doing remedial tasks like assembly line work. Otherwise, for any other tasks that require high levels of cognition, these rewards (teacher praise, points in the gradebook, etc.) actually narrow and limit the results.

Carol Dweck in her research has shown us that rewards confuse the types of goals learners have. Learning goals are centered around mastery where performance goals are focused on a tangible reward. Are our students focused on mastering Chinese or earning an “A” in Chinese? Pink puts it best in his Educational Leadership interview (2014) when he says,

“The research shows that reaching performance goals doesn’t necessarily mean that you have hit a learning goal. If people are single-mindedly focused on performance goals–and they achieve them–it doesn’t mean they’ve learned anything, improved their capabilities, or mastered something complex. However, if a kid is single-mindedly focused on a learning goal–mastering algebra–chances are he’s going to do pretty well. In the process, he’ll probably attain that performance goal and get his A. So it’s best to simply go for the learning goal and use the grades and scores as feedback as the student works toward mastery (Azzam, p. 14).”

So how do we move learners from performance-minded to mastery-minded?

What do we do?

Through my own transformation with my sophomores who relied heavily on points, grades, and task completion I found I could create conditions where students would focus on the learning instead. Here a few things I tried that succeeded.

    • I organized my grade book by essential learnings/standards (i.e. Reading and Comprehending Literature; Writing for a Variety of Task, Audience, and Purpose, or Communication and Collaboration)
    • I put formative information in my gradebook using symbols (+ for on the right track, – for needs more support, M for missing–haven’t seen the practice).
    • I then graded summative assessments with Rick Wormeli’s ABC Do It Over philosophy. Everything was graded with a rubric and students had opportunities to rework areas of the rubric they didn’t master yet. I thought I would end up with loads of students taking advantage of me (crappy first attempt knowing they can do it again), but I found they didn’t want to do it more than once if they could master it the first time. And those that needed another opportunity were reflective, open to more coaching, and ultimately moved closer to mastery.
    • I stopped grading everything. I was clear that everything should be “grade worthy” but that I wouldn’t be grading everything. Sometimes I just needed information (formative work) from students so I knew where to focus my instruction the next day and just because they wrote down their thinking didn’t mean I needed to put 5 points in the grade book.
    • I provided a LOT more choice to give students more autonomy.
    • I stopped teaching novels and papers and started implementing inquiry units of study where students were immersed in a rich library of texts print and digital to explore a provocative essential question. Students read, wrote, thought, and talked their way to their understanding and answer to our essential question.
    • I pushed my students to ask me “WHY” we were doing what we were doing. If they didn’t understand the purpose I knew they wouldn’t have a learning goal. And I refused to answer with “because you’ll need to know it for college.” That answer didn’t work! I needed to help them understand the here and now relevance for what they were learning. “Why are we reading this article?” a student might ask. “Because we are interrogating the question Is indifference the opposite of love as Elie Weisel says? This article provides a necessary perspective as we try to answer that essential question.

I invite you to share your ideas in the comments section below. Next month we will explore student voice and choice as important contributors to student motivation and engagement.

Azzam, A.M. (Sept., 2014). Motivated to learn: A conversation with Daniel Pink. Educational Leadership. ASCD. 72(1) 12-17.
Dweck, Carol S.. (2008) Mindset :the new psychology of success New York : Ballantine Books.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Wormeli, R. (Nov., 2011). Redos and retakes done right. Educational Leadership. ASCD. 69(3) 22-26.