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Declining Student Engagement; Are Extrinsic Motivators to Blame?

"Students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or other “goodies” become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and take chances." - Alfie Kohn

Earlier this year, after reading Scott McLeod's alert, I wrote about Gallup's report indicating students become less engaged in school as they advance through their program. David Perkins says this decline in student engagement is the result of a relevancy gap, a difference between our prescribed curriculum and learning experiences that offer a significant "life-worthy" return for students. Later, I asked David White if guiding students towards greater digital residency, in other words, providing more opportunities for interactive digital learning, would increase student engagement. 

David said, "There is ongoing research based on this premise, but any conclusions should include sound pedagogical practice."

As someone who always enjoys learning, and usually enjoyed school, I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around this trend of declining student engagement in school. I've shared Gallup's survey results with teachers, students, and their parents, asking for suggestions about the cause of student disengagement. Answers have included boredom, distractions, and the proliferation of competing interests. As he typically does, Alfie Kohn shifts my thoughts about student engagement in another direction. 
Gallup (2016). Engagement Today - Ready for Tomorrow, Fall 2015 survey results. Washington,  DC: Author
(n = 928,888)



The use of extrinsic motivators is likely to decrease student engagement in school.

This hypothesis will keep me awake at night during the coming weeks or months. Extrinsic motivators can include grades, tokens, or even unconditional praise. Kohn's report ignites my curiosity with statements like:

  • Classroom management programs that rely on rewards and consequences ought to be avoided by any educator who wants students to take responsibility for their behavior.
  • Grades, in particular, have been found to have a detrimental effect on creative thinking, long-term retention, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks.
  • Parental use of rewards or consequences to induce children to do well in school has a similarly negative effect on the enjoyment of learning and, ultimately, on achievement.

Is the lack of student engagement an issue in your school or classroom? Are rewards given like candy to gain compliance and increase motivation? The relevancy gap is a reality for many schools, long-standing grading practices are under scrutiny, and the schooling needs of the modern learner are changing rapidly. Who can argue with Alfie Kohn's conclusion?

"Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what they are learning. Rewards, like punishments, are unnecessary when these things are present and are ultimately destructive in any case."

If not extrinsic motivators, then what is causing most of our older students to disengage from learning following their elementary school years? Please share your comments because I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

Related Reading


The Emotional Weight of Being Graded... - Mindshift, Linda Flanagan

Comments

Robert,

Thanks for the thoughtful post. YES, motivation is an issue. I 100% agree with Alfie Kohn's research that extrinsic motivators (grades being the most pervasive) are the cause of the disengagement.

An upcoming post for me is how the ADDICTION to extrinsic motivators almost ensures that, as we move away from them, we will first see a major LULL and IMPLEMENTATION DIP--not to mention OPPOSITION. We are not always greeted as liberators. If points, grades, and other extrinsic motivators are not seen as an addiction, we will continually back down in our opposition to these practices--not unlike a junkie flees back to the comfortable misery of his habit.

Another metaphor that comes to mind is lawn care. Lawns that are addicted to a steady regimen of chemical weed-and-feed treatments struggle to transition to a natural, self-sustaining ecology. We've got to have a "strong enough why" to tough it out through the skepticism and scorn.

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