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Ok - which would motivate you more... A chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie or a chance to win a date with Brad Pitt?

Weird question, right?  I was watching a TV discussion about Hollywood's "most beautiful couple", and for some strange reason, I saw an educational corollary buried beneath it.  

Here's the point: If you would be motivated by a chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie, then a chance to win a date with Brad Pitt probably wouldn't do much for you.  And if you'd do anything for a date with Brad Pitt, you probably don't care too much about a chance to go out with Angelina Jolie.  This got me thinking about external motivators and how they're often used - or misused - by educators.  

External motivators don't cause people to be motivated if they don't already care about the external motivator.  External motivators don't create new motivation - they just reinforce motivators already in place.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage or discourage the use of external motivation.  The purpose is to challenge educators to look at such motivators with a dose of reality - not all motivators will work for all students and not all are appropriate to use in all situations.

As I have worked with teachers around the country on the topic of assessment and grading, it is rather easy to help people reach a level of cognitive agreement with the concept of making sure that a grade assigned to a student represents mastery.  But many teachers struggle with the fear that if they assign grades based on mastery they will lose the "carrot and stick" of rewarding with points or assigning low grades and zeroes.  I don't pretend to have the answer to every hypothetical or potential grading and assessment situation - and I definitely don't believe there is a one size fits all solution that works in every class with every student.  But I do know the following to be true:

  1. Students who routinely do not turn in work or make up missed assignments tend to not be motivated by the fear of the zero or the low grade - or they would have done the work in the first place.  I'm not suggesting that a zero or low grade couldn't be appropriate in certain situations, but we just shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that this external motivator was ever working with these students to begin with.  To tell a routine "zero-getter" that he'll receive a zero if he doesn't turn in his work would be like telling me I'll lose out on a date with Brad Pitt if I don't do my work.  BTW - I didn't mention this earlier but I would be much more motivated by a chance to win a date with Angelina Jolie!
  2. Students who already care about their grades are the ones motivated by grades and earning points because they already care about those external motivators.  Over the years teachers have used grades as carrots and sticks with these students to encourage compliance.  However, these are the students who drive us crazy when they seem to only care about are earning points rather than learning content.  So using grades as the primary motivator to get these students to do work is a problem for another reason - it promotes the idea students have that points are more important than learning.
  3. When grades are used as inappropriate carrots and sticks - v. appropriate - then grades become falsified.  Rather than communicate mastery, they begin to represent how hard a student worked or how much they worked instead of what they learned.  This is unacceptable - unless your goal is for the grade to represent effort more than or as much as mastery.

It's really hard to blame teachers for using grades as carrots and sticks.  After all, it's been done this way forever.  We are all products of an educational system that operates as though everyone is motivated by the same external factors and that trains students to only work for external motivators.  Our teachers did this - our universities taught us to teach this way - our school divisions' grading systems are usually set up this way - it's just the way it's always been.

But that doesn't mean it has to stay this way.

While it's fine to come up with carrots and sticks that work in your classroom with individual students it's not fine to:

  1. Have a "bag of motivational tricks" so limited that we end up trying to use tricks we know won't work with certain students instead of searching for other ways to motivate, inspire, encourage, and successfully demand that students work.
  2. Foster the misguided idea that collecting points is more important than learning.
  3. Assign final grades that we know do not reflect content knowledge and skills gained as a result of our excellent teaching.

I really don't have specific answers to share - just some things to think about.  

If you think there might be a better way, then you can't keep doing what you've always done.  If you're wanna change, then you gotta change.  Don't expect to keep everything the same except for your allocation of points and then see a revolution in your classroom.  If you're looking for a place to begin, try exploring the concepts of Standards Based Learning.  I'd suggest taking a look at some of the resources on and following the Twitter Chat #SBLchat - Wednesdays at 9:00 pm EST.

I apologize if I've muddied the waters more than I've made them clearer, but sometimes answers aren't simple.  Asking questions, though, is essential.  Try asking yourself these:

  1. Do I try to use grades and/or points to motivate?
  2. Does it work the way I want it to?
  3. Does it lead to falsified grades (grades that don't represent mastery)?
  4. Would there be other external motivators I could use with my students besides grades and points?


If they don't want to hang out with Brad, see if they'd rather hang out with Angelina...

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Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about being an FBI agent, training to be an FBI agent, or anything at all related to the FBI...

Recently I had a conversation at church with a friend who is a former-English-teacher-turned-FBI-agent.  We were discussing a David Baldacci novel i was reading at the time about the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team.  My friend recommended a book by FBI Special Agent Christopher Whitcomb entitled Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.  The next week at church, my friend showed up with a copy of the book for me, and yesterday I finally got around to starting it.

Now please realize, this book has absolutely nothing to do with teaching or education whatsoever.  I am not recommending it as a book for teachers to read - unless the teacher likes books about the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.  But believe it or not, I found a little Standards Based Learning nugget on page 37.  

The author is recounting how he became an FBI agent.  At this point in the book he has made it to the FBI Academy in Quantico where the best of the best are trained and held to the highest of standards.  In talking about the tests they had to take, the author says the following:

Somewhere in between, we found time to study for the exams that came with relentless frequency.  At least once a week our entire class huddled together, reviewing notes and making sure the less prepared among us would feel ready the next day.  As our letters stated, a score of 84 or lower in any course would result in a New Agent Review Board and disciplinary action.  If you failed to achieve 85 on a makeup exam or performed similarly on another exam, you were gone.

Did you notice what he said?  If you didn't earn a satisfactory score of 85 on a test, you were kicked out of the FBI Academy - BUT NOT RIGHT AWAY.  That's right - the world's top law enforcement agency - that only selects the best of the best of the best and that has the highest standards anywhere - GIVES STUDENTS TEST REDOS!

Often, when considering whether or not to allow students to redo work originally done poorly, teachers are concerned that by doing so they might not prepare young people for the real world.  Teachers struggle with the concept of students getting used to redos and not receiving them later on in life.  I appreciate the logic behind that.  But while I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions to this statement, the real world is full of second chances.

I'm sure for every example I came up with of people getting chances to redo things in the real world, someone could find another example where someone didn't get that chance.  And I'm sure the example I just shared from the FBI has its flaws and limitations.  But the bottom line is this: It is not true that people don't get redos in the real world.

Of course, it is also true that school isn't the real world - it's school.  We aren't supposed to be the same as the real world.  In some cases, we should be better than the real world.  After all, the real world has plenty of flaws.  In other cases, we are preparing for the real world that students will encounter eventually.  But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that if we give a student a redo or retake - ESPECIALLY IF BY DOING SO THE STUDENT LEARNS THE CONTENT - we are dong a poor job of preparing students.

After all, I'd say the FBI Academy is about as "real world" as you get, and even they allow - regardless of how limited - an opportunity for a test redo.

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