Friday, 15 July 2011 21:50

Recognition: The 10th Nurturing Force of Intrinsic Motivation (Part 3 of 3)

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This blog post marks the end of my 13-week series on nurturing students’ intrinsic motivation. As I  close out my discussion of this topic, I want to distinguish between recognitions and rewards.  Many consider them to be one in the same.  In fact, I vividly recall a course I taught to a group of teachers where I was pointing out the dangers of using extrinsic rewards and suggesting instead the nurturing of intrinsic motivation based on the ideas described in this blog series.  One member of the group, however, drew the conclusion that, because some of the recognition ideas involve notes and certificates, now we are supposed to give students rewards but call them recognitions instead.  He saw no clear difference between the two approaches.

My response was that recognitions are qualitatively different from rewards.  The critical issue in separating the two is that of control.  Rewards are used to control the behavior and effort of students.  When defining rewards, I use author Alfie Kohn’s definition: “If you do this, you will get that.”  When children are offered a goody for completing a task, their energies are narrowly channeled in that direction.  There’s a controlling context when something is promised in advance.  

With recognitions, there’s no effort to control students.  Recognitions are meant to acknowledge a job well done and to express appreciation.  Though recognitions often come in tangible form, they are never promised in advance and are not used to manipulate behavior.  There’s no “if you do this, you will get that” at work.  

Confusion arises when we think of rewards as objects, rather than as situations.  A “Way to Go” Note is not, in itself, a reward; it depends on the context in which the note is presented.  For example, if I hold up a “Way to Go” at the beginning of the day and say, “Kids, I will present one of these sheets to every student who behaves well today,” then that would be a reward because it fits Kohn’s definition: if the kids behave well, they will get a “Way to Go” Note.  However, if I approach a student at the end of the day and say, “Alice, you really did great work today, and I’d like you to have this,” then that’s a recognition because it’s presented after the fact to acknowledge a job well done with no attempt to control behavior.

I don’t mean to imply that recognitions have no potential downside.  It’s certainly possible for a student to receive acknowledgement for a job well done and then to continue behaving this way for the sole purpose of receiving further acknowledgement.  Students can become addicted to recognition just as they do to rewards.  The answer, however, is not to eliminate recognition.  I don’t know too many people who would want to work in a classroom where teachers and students didn’t acknowledge one another’s efforts.  You’d need a jacket in that kind of cold atmosphere.  Rather, any difficulties associated with recognition should be dealt with honestly and openly through class discussions.  Be proactive.  By identifying and discussing potential problems before they occur, we greatly decrease the likelihood that they ever will.


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