CC Image from

Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm and I were recently asked by educator and author Larry Ferlazzo to respond to the question: HOW CAN WE  KEEP STUDENTS ENGAGED WITHOUT CARROTS & STICKS?  My response originally appeared at Education Week here but I wanted to cross-post on my blog as well.

Becoming a father and making the transition to teaching primary students has made it very clear to me that our kids begin their lives with an inquisitive mind and an enviable level of excitement for learning.  Primary students seem to have an energetic curiosity and require very little motivation for engagement; however, as these students progress through our system and the focus moves from the child to the curriculum and learning to grades, they often seem to lose that drive.  We, as parents and educators, often influence a shift in this drive by focusing on results and external motivators.  By dangling things such as grades, praise, prizes, awards, and threats of punishment, we unintentionally rob students of responsibility and their intrinsic drive for learning; we alter the focus to what they will get rather than what they are doing.  By the time students reach high school, their inquisitive desire to learn is often shifted to a quest for grades. For those students who do not see relevance and purpose in this quest, they often disengage as learners and then we feel the need to resort to motivating by offering carrots and threatening sticks.

I strongly believe that (to adapt from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, researchers of motivation at the University of Rochester and written about by Daniel Pink), we cannot motivate students; we can only create the conditions in which students can motivate themselves.  We cannot MAKE kids learn; we can make them behave a certain way, memorize and complete tasks in the short-term when we are supervising them but this does not mean they are gaining the skills and receiving the support needed to be learners.

Even in a system dominated by curricula, scores, and grades, we can still work to tap into that intrinsic drive by focusing on:

  1. Relationships – a trusting, caring relationship helps students to understand the learning is about them rather than test scores and curricula. In order for us to make the curriculum relevant to their learning we must build relationships with our students.
  2. Ownership – Work WITH students so they have a voice in their learning. Through a focus on Assessment For Learning, we include students in assessments and provide ongoing dialogue around descriptive feedback (rather than grades) based on agreed upon criteria and goals.  Harvard professor and author Dr. Ross Greene states that “all students can do well if they can”; we need to provide the feedback on behaviour and learning skills so kids can do well. Too, we need to include students in this conversation.
  3. Choice – Provide students with more autonomy of HOW they will learn and demonstrate their learning.
  4. Relevancy – Relate the curriculum to the interests and passions of our students. They need to see meaningful connections and purpose for real learning to occur.
  5. SuccessTom Schimmer, a BC author and leader in Assessment for Learning, says that we need to “over prepare ‘em” for that first summative assessment.  Push back those first few assessments and ensure students do well then build on this experienced success. We need to focus on strengths, support the challenges, and help students have a growth mindset so they can experience failure and success as feedback and develop the belief they can all be learners.

Our students arrive at school motivated to learn. Through accountability measures and other structures we are often forced to produce short-term results. Unfortunately, this can lead to the use of extrinsic motivators which place the focus away from the learning and on the immediate result rather than the skills and support needed for long-term engagement and success. As educators, we must continue to work to create the conditions to best support our students so that they can maintain that intrinsic drive for learning and not become someone who only reaches for that dangled carrot.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.