25 10 2010

I like carrots. Although I’m pretty sure that they do nothing for my vision, I enjoy them raw, cooked and juiced. My son Ben has participated in his School Garden Program for a few years and each year, carrots are included on the list of things he must grow.  And carrots that are grown in your backyard simply have much more flavor than the “garden variety” ones you get from the store.

Though carrots are the trademark of Senor Bugs Bunny, it didn’t stop the Utah Celery Company from offering to supply all Warner Brothers Studio staffers with their product if Bugs would switch from carrots to celery (true story!).

In teacher circles, I’ve heard the phrase “carrot on a stick” thrown around a lot lately. I wish there was another phrase that could be used since this one doesn’t sit well with me. My initial understanding of “carrot and stick” was that it was based on the idea of luring a donkey, by tying a carrot on the end of a stick. As someone who has gone through the teenage years as an active male, I can attest to the fact that hunger can be a powerful motivator.

Mules are stubborn, and as the story of this phrase’s origin goes,  some enterprising farmer rigged up a stick with a carrot on a string that would dangle in front of the mule, a few inches from his nose. The mule could never get close enough to take a bite but would keep running to try and catch up with the carrot. I’ve seen evidence of this on a Little Rascals routine, a Janis Joplin monologue, some clipart, and a story told on a religious web site. Weighty evidence, don’t you think?

So if you were using the “carrot and stick” with someone, you were constantly promising them something as a means of motivating them. Teachers use all kinds of strategies to increase motivation, but I just don’t like the comparison of students with donkeys. As I said earlier, It doesn’t sit well with me.

Historically, extrinsic motivators have had their place in the classroom setting. Stickers, sparkly pencils, prizes, candy and the coveted gold stars led to the promise of high grades and the sought after “G” in the Effort column  I think many will agree that the Intrinsic motivators – loving learning for the sake of learning – are better outcomes for educators to pursue. But these take time and effort and creative thought (commodities that are often in short supply). How can we better cultivate this learning approach in the students we’ve been entrusted to teach?

An intrinsically motivated student will work on a math equation, for example, because it is enjoyable. They like the challenge of discovering the answer on their own. Is the challenge then for us , to discover what part of each student’s day is most enjoyable? I think so.

What if we were to dovetail our knowledge about each student’s interest or hobby with an appropriate challenge that will help them discover that learning can be enjoyable  . . . if their learning is tied to stuff they are already interested in?

The key then, would be knowing each student. Teachers will need to find out their student’s interests and then be on the lookout for ways to expand their understanding with what they already love. Maybe it’s hockey (“What is Luongo’s Save Percentage this year? How could we calculate that?”). Maybe it’s cooking (you could try measuring out ingredients and in turn combine fractions). All of us have interests (i.e. carrots) outside of the classroom. The goal for the teacher would be then, to determine what those are and create learning challenges to expand student understanding.

From this carrot cruncher’s perspective, these will be investments with high dividends.




2 responses

25 10 2010
Chris Wejr

Ahhh… love this topic! Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and Alfie Kohn’s “Punished By Rewards” are must reads on this topic. You said it – extrinsic motivators are easy and they work – short term. As Kohn said (paraphrase) “rewards are great in motivating students to… want more rewards”. I like how Pink puts it – we need “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” and when we relate students’ interests to this -we have something!

25 10 2010
Cale Birk

Agree completely, getting to know your students and their interests in paramount. A number of our teachers at the HS level are building in introductory activities ranging from student interest surveys to “developing interest hamburgers” (would take too much to explain here), and as a result are able to tailor exercises to meet the needs of many of their class members. I think an important addition to this is for us as educators to do the exercise with our students, so they can get to know a bit about us as well. I would also think that activities such as this would work effectively with a Principal and his staff!

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