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Engaging Without Carrots & Sticks

CC Image from http://flic.kr/p/5PbHjR

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.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

31 Comments

  1. Totally agree with the five listed, especially #2 ownership. Traditional grading scales and systems are hurting the system, teachers have always reported that students will do ‘just’ what it takes for a grade. Whereas classrooms using standards based grading are reporting students who are relearning and reassessing, even when they already have the grade.

    • YES! I am hoping that ABG will soon become the norm… if grades are policy, we must at least make them as accurate as possible…. and put the focus on learning instead of grading.

  2. Great list Chris. I would add that the relationships between educators are also key as they allow us to collaborate with the intent to positively impact outcomes for students. If we all share the notion that it’s about the kids and make our conversations focussed on that, we worry less about what others think about the results.

    • Great addition Tom! We are working to create time for teachers to collaborate but this is no easy task with bus schedules, timetables, etc. Hoping that we soon realize that the smartest people in the the room… are the people.

  3. I’m in the middle of reading Tony Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators, and he emphasizes play, passion and purpose–it goes along really well with your post. I love this post. We have to inspire students–intrinsic motivation does not come from sticker charts!

    • Bang on… I am not sure why we think that students are motivated by things in which adults are not. The carrot will get short term results for some… but that is not our goal. I have added Wagner’s book to my list.. thanks!

  4. I’ve often pondered why students seem to go “downhill” after middle-school. In their files, I’d find they were working so well and so hard in elementary grades, then..pfffft. They would reach my tenth grade class and hate everything. You’ve nailed it; we have only perpetuated their apathy with our emphasis on results. Thanks, Chris! @MindyKellerKyri

    • YEs, it starts now for our kids. As Dylan Wiliam writes… HOW we teach is often more important than WHAT we teach. I would add that HOW we teach IS often what we teach (I stole this from Larry Cuban).

  5. Great to read your post again, Chris! Thanks for providing all the information and links to other resources and people here as well.

    To me, the carrots and sticks approach does not send the message of the value of learning, or support life-long learning. I think such approaches meet the needs of the “server” in the short term more than the needs of the recipient for the long term.

    Lots to question perhaps regarding responsibility and accountability…and how that guides and affects our approaches – both as parents and educators.

    Insightful comments from others too!

    • Thanks Sheila…. I asks myself all the time: is this about me or the student? I often do not have all the tools to do what I think is best but I still need to make every effort to work WITH students rather than do things TO students.

  6. This is a great reminder that even though there are barriers, we can still change what happens in the classroom to drive intrinsic motivation. your list speaks of “doables” in our classrooms and our schools. Thanks for articulating so well.

    • Thanks Chris… we often hear all the reasons why we have to resort to carrots and sticks. It is way more difficult to build relationships and there are many barriers… but that is no reason to throw in the towel… and pick up the prizes. Raising and teaching kids is a long term job.

  7. YES, relationships are key. To take risks you have trust those around you and to do some serious learning you have to take risks. Investment in establishing string relationships in the classroom will always pave the way to great classroom energy and dynamic.
    Love the post, and great visual!

    • Love all the things you are doing in your class. It just shows it is never too late to create the conditions for students to motivate themselves in their learning!

  8. Nice post, Chris
    The carrots and sticks (extrinsic merits of education) can produce a good student but not necessarily a good thinker.

    The five listed “how to’s” are really about helping students move from finding to discovering; from getting the right answer to uncovering a truth that has personal relevance; from merely doing school to engaging in it; from redundancy to constructing new meaning.

    As a new father myself, way back when, I remember when my daughter was born, holding her and thinking, “wow, she’s experiencing a person’s warm breath upon her face for the very first time.” The enormity of this experience, and what it meant, overwhelmed me, to the point of tears, at that moment. We need to never lose sight of the “wow, first time” enormity that we can provide our own students provided we continue to focus upon creating the right conditions.

    One father’s warm embrace is a teacher’s inclusive classroom of perpetual discovery.

    • Wow… beauty. Any response from me will take away from the power of your comment… I hope readers just take it in.

  9. Great post! I found your blog while searching for Alfie Kohn info. Alfie Kohn and Ross Greene have transformed the way I approach parenting, teaching and discipline. As an undergrad, my training was heavy on the behaviorism. Boy, have I come a long way!

    I’m lucky to be able to incorporate what I’ve learned at home, but I’m having a harder time convincing my school and district to take a hard look at their disciplinary systems. I’d love it if sticker charts went the way of the mimeograph, but I’ll settle for a move away from punitive practices.

    While I’ve tried any number of ways of approaching teachers and administrators, I think the key lies in understanding what prompts people to look beyond their initial training or their current worldview. What has shaped YOUR journey? Could you perhaps blog about the path from behaviorism to more compassionate and productive approaches for helping children? I’d love to hear your story and others’! Thanks so much!

    • Thanks for sharing your journey… for me it has been about reflection and learning from others. I realized that many of the things I was trying were not working like I had hoped but I did not have any other tools. I also realized that the methods I was using as a coach, I was not using as a teacher. This reflection, combined with reading and discussing motivation with other educators and students led me to where I am today. I still have a ton of stuff to learn as I am far from figuring it out… but I strongly believe I am on the right path.

  10. Hi Chris,
    You write about a topic near and dear to my heart. Every word you say is so true and I could not agree with you more. I truly believe it is the responsibility of the teacher and the school to grow the natural quest for learning that all people have. I have tried to put my own thoughts together on this in a couple of posts:

    http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com/2012/02/04/what-your-rules-say-about-you/

    http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com/2012/02/13/are-those-kids-off-task-again-one-trick-to-change-off-task-behaviour/

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks for sharing these posts… love the dialogue happening in your school around student engagement! I will definitely be stealing some of your ideas! 🙂

  11. Chris,
    Your observations on learning describe the Montessori Method perfectly.
    After 12 years as a public school educator,and presently starting my 5th year as the Director of a Montessori School I lament that what you see remains in public education blindspot.

    • It is very interesting that the ideas of educators like Montessori and Reggio are starting to filter into the public school system. Keep spreading the message of the power of the Montessori system as there are philosophies there that need to be in every school!

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