What's Happening in Character?

Leaving Your Ex(trinsics)

Posted by Marvin Berkowitz on Thu, Nov 10, 2016 @ 09:11 AM


Marvin-Berkowitz.png“Leaving Your Ex(trinsics)” is the title of Chapter 6 in my book You Can’t Teach Through a Rat , and the one I most frequently recommend to educators, because the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation seems the most nagging and intractable issue that educators in general and character educators in particular struggle with.  There are multiple reasons to struggle with this issue.  On the positive side: (1) it is the point of Character.org’s 7 th principle in their 11 Principles of Effective Character Education (which is used to evaluate schools nationally for excellence in character education, namely Schools of Character); (2) it is after all the point of character education; that is, getting kids to internalize core values so they become part of who they are and take them wherever they go in life; and (3) it works.


On the negative side: (1) there is a seductiveness to using extrinsic motivators particularly because they work in the immediate moment; (2) it is what we have always done; and (3) it is so much easier and concrete than to engage in more intrinsic-supportive strategies.  Plus, the connection between a behavior and an extrinsic consequence is so much more direct and clear than longer-term approaches.  As the saying goes, for every complex problem, there is a simple solution… and it is wrong.

So let’s get practical.  If you truly want to use practices and strategies that foster the internalization of core values, especially moral values, in your students, and you are addicted to extrinsic motivators, what should you do?  Well, short of joining EMA (Extrinsic Motivators Anonymous), here are some suggestions based on research:

  • Stop giving things for behavior. No more stickers, M&Ms, fruity-smelling sparkly pencils, nor paw-shaped coupons redeemable for worthless nonsense.  As one superb principal did, donate them to the local children’s hospital as gifts to patients, or to a local homeless shelter.  Shift from giving things to praising.
  • No more a priori contingencies. That means don’t set up public expectations that if a child does X (perfect attendance, helps a new kid, mediates a conflict, etc.) that she or he knows in advance there is a reward for it.  Instead, focus on spontaneous responses to teachable moments with no specific expectations in advance.  Catch ‘em in the act of doing good, but don’t tell them that if they do X they will get Y.
  • No more audiences for motivational responses . End your school assemblies where you march kids across the stage naively thinking the kids watching will now rededicate themselves to personal character improvement.  Stop using your PA system to announce who the “best kids” in the school are that day, week or month.  Just let kids know privately that you are proud of them (or disappointed in them; it goes for both affirmation and critical behavioral feedback).
  • Stop focusing on outcomes. Research shows that focusing on outcome supports any path to the outcome (including lying, cheating and stealing, which are the three cardinal sins of the honor systems in all our military academies), but focusing on effort leads to trying harder . If you can’t stop rewarding, reward effort and not outcome (reward them for trying as hard as they can, not for achieving the highest grades or behaving perfectly).
  • Limit reliance on reactive discipline strategies. Be proactive and not just reactive. Don’t just respond to the behaviors (good or bad), but set in place structures and processes that increase the likelihood of good behavior.  Character education (done well) is prevention, after all.  Creating shared norms, being role models of character, intentionally and strategically building healthy relationships among all stakeholders, crafting caring/just/safe climates in classrooms and schools, teaching social-emotional competencies, etc. are all ways of decreasing the likelihood of needing corrective responses
  • Stop focusing on immediate results. Think long term. Ask yourself why you are using the strategies you favor.  If you are honest, a good part of it will be controlling student behavior now.  I suggest you shift your goals to fostering the long-term, positive development of the student.  One reason extrinsics are so widely used is that they often work in changing behavior in the moment, but are relatively ineffective in the long-term development of the child, and can often actually increase undesirable behavior in the long run.  Character education is about nurturing the positive development of our future citizens, not managing the behavior of kids right now.

As I suggested above, I know what the pushback is likely to be, having heard it over and over.  In fact that is why I know that using rewards and public recognition are so intractable and seductive.  I recently had the opportunity present a workshop to school leaders of schools for severely underserved youth around the world. Throughout the day there was constant push back on my position on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, just as there is everywhere.  At one point a couple of great educators from South Africa had a side conversation with me trying to justify continuing to use extrinsic rewards as motivators.  As I countered each argument, they resorted to, “Marvin, with kids like these you have to use rewards.” 

These were not naïve educators from outside the world the kids inhabited; these were dedicated educators who lived in, looked like, and came from the same neighborhoods as the kids they served.  My reply?  “So let me see if I understand your argument.  Poor black kids should more appropriately be treated like pet animals than should other children.  Did I get that right?”  I think that finally reached them. 

One part of my argument is that educators have implicit theories of the child.  That is, they have assumptions about how kids tick, about what gets them to learn, about what motivates them, and about what gets them to care deeply about human goodness.  But they often are not aware of these assumptions.  Behavioral approaches assume that children are like pet animals and should be shaped and trained by material consequences in a hierarchical, authoritarian relationship.  I cannot think of children that way, and hence will not in good conscience use strategies that embody and perpetuate them.

Another argument I get is that extrinsics are part of life.  I just received a note from a successful CEO, who argued that, with her experience in business, she has seen extrinsics work repeatedly to motivate employees, customers, etc.  And she is right, it can and does work.  But to make an analogy between motivating a hired employee or a customer and fostering positive development in children and adolescents is not that much different than the analogy between training pets and fostering child development.  They are not the same thing.  What works to get an employee to work harder or a customer to be satisfied and return is not the same as what works to get a child to internalize the value of honesty or develop the virtue of responsibility.  I have asked hundreds of people around the world to pick one of their character strengths and then reflect on what caused them to become that kind of person.  Not one person has ever said it was a reward, punishment, or school recognition assembly that led to their character development.


And yes, I have seen some take the plunge and purge extrinsics in their schools.  Stephanie Valleroy, a recently retired principal of Northview High School (St. Louis, MO), which is a public special education school (and special education is a highly behavioristic niche in education), systematically shifted from extrinsic motivators to intrinsic motivators, and her school was recognized as a NSOC and is highly successful.

 If we truly want to positively impact the long-term moral formation of youth, then we need to understand what works to effectively promote such development.  Ultimately it is about patience, love, modeling, empowerment, scaffolding, and teaching, not about rewards and punishment.   It is neither simple nor easy, but it gives us our greatest chance to help kids internalize the values and develop the virtues that we want and need in all members of our world.


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Topics: intrinsic motivation