Motivation: It’s not the Carrot or the Stick

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When you have taught a student who didn’t care about punishment or rewards, hopefully, as a teacher, this lead you to reflect and re-think notions of motivation. I’ve had a few students pass through my classroom and never budge, regardless of any type of incentive I offered or any type of punishment I flat-out threatened. Regardless of the type of motivation, certain students will always unveil the erroneous “carrot or the stick” dichotomy of human motivation.

The “carrot or the stick” method of motivation falls into the category of “if/then” rewards. This type of motivation works for mundane tasks. For tasks that require a recollection and regurgitation of basic, almost robotic, skills, black and white incentive works just fine. For example, I use incentives as a means to manage my classroom. My students are organized in groups. I award “group points” to those groups who enter the classroom, sit down, and get ready to learn the fastest. They can also earn points by cleaning up the fastest during “clean up” time at the end of the day. It is rewards based on simple compliance. It works and it’s made my classroom management super easy for the last two years and running!

But learning, production and creativity has nothing to do with compliance. You do not want to teach your students the notion that in order to get ahead in life all you have to do is comply. This is where the carrot and the stick fail. When it comes to productivity, rewards based on performance actually stifle productivity. The science behind this fact has been backed for the last four decades now.

Performance depends more on intrinsic motivation than extrinsic. Sorry to burst the bubble, but those students who do well when you ask them to memorize a bunch of terms and then spit them back out on a test are not doing well because of your teaching style. These students are “succeeding” because something inside of them is driving them to perform. Barring any circumstances that may alter a child’s outlook on life, the kid that does well in school in the fourth grade is going to do well in the tenth grade. This is not because of the teaching. It’s basically because of that child’s intrinsic motivation (as well as a few other major factors that have nothing to do with the teacher and everything to do with schooling – Perhaps I will delve into this in another blog).

Instead of constantly tapping into external motivation, education needs to look at the things that intrinsically drive human creativity and production. Google’s 20% time is an example of allotting people the opportunity to explore their own passions. Cutting edge institutions for creativity and production have realized that “if/then” models of motivation do nothing for productivity and actually destroy creativity. When we understand that helping the student who doesn’t want to be helped is not about reward vs. punishment but rather about rooting out what drives said student, we will not only create more creative, passionate and engaged learners, but we will ultimately strengthen education and the ways we facilitate learning.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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