Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Extrinsic Rewards: Observations from the Office of a Car Salesman

My Faithful Companion....
A few weeks ago, my car died. My little silver Camry, a faithful companion through many of my life's biggest changes, sputtered to a stop on the side of a highway in Toledo. After a mechanic told me, "It's really over this time," I set off to the nearest car dealer to find a suitable replacement.

Upon my arrival at the dealership, I met Dennis who politely ushered me from shiny car to shiny car. Given that I'm a no-nonsense shopper, this lasted about 3.5 minutes until I told him that I had firmly decided and we should start to look at prices.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Dennis' office was that it was filled with awards. Some looked like gears, others were embellished with clocks, and some even had his picture embossed on them. There was barely a centimeter of wall space visible behind his desk. In some ways, it was almost comical. Perhaps I had stumbled upon the best car salesman in all the Midwest? Seems unlikely. (Especially since many of his colleagues also had heaping piles of awards in their offices!)

Sometimes schools feel like Dennis' office. Students work to receive awards, grades, and accolades. They all receive the mostly the same awards, regardless of their performance. Soon, these awards lose relevance to students, and they simply become inert artifacts of the experience we call "school."

Research tells us that extrinsic motivation is temporary, and it doesn't promote long term success. Much of the research in Paul Tough's most recent book (which cites Dweck, Duckworth, and Pink among others) tells us that we should provide students with feedback on their effort, not their achievements. This often does not look like trophies or awards, instead it looks like targeted, instant feedback on effort expended in relation to performance.

So... don't tell anyone they did a "good job" today. Instead note how hard they worked and it's effect on their performance. Unless you're trying to haggle a car salesman, that is!


  1. Dr. Swanson, Your account is interesting and shows just how you view the world as offering 'teachable moments.' In pointing out just how many extrinsic awards there are in each of our worlds, you also highlighted the need for each of us to have a sense of value placed upon our progress of work. Many times, the process is much more involved and complex than the outcome or product. Wonderfully researched, observed and reported to us, your readers, on this site. Thank you for what you continue to do for education, for both teachers and students alike. ~Eric J. Metzner, Educator and student

  2. Hi Eric! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am always trying to examine the world with a lens of "learning." I think that limiting our ability to think about the best ways to educate others to the classroom causes us to miss endless opportunities. Thank you for reading!



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