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  • Writer's picturearniebieber

What science knows and what school does

There is a contradiction between what scientific research tells us about human motivation and how the business world attempts to motivate its workforce to perform, often with the promise of a bonus or pay for performance schemes. In this regard, Dan Pink, in his book Drive, tells us that, “For too long, there’s been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” It turns out that counter to what we would expect, extrinsic or external “incentives” such as bonuses or grades are only effective in motivating completion of simple or low-level tasks, but are counterproductive to achieving higher level functioning or creativity.

Motivation research has not only analyzed the behavior of adults, but of school age and university students as well, with identical results. Time and again the research demonstrates that it is intrinsic motivation which truly allows young people to create, problem solve and learn deeply.  The research finds that extrinsic motivation, such as gold stars or grades are actually obstacles to creativity.

Recently, the ISP parent group, Edge in Education, viewed and discussed the Dan Pink TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation.

ISP Parent Group "Edge in Education"

ISP Parent Group “Edge in Education”

In his talk, Pink convincingly demonstrates the true nature of how we are motivated to work creatively and solve problems.

In his book Drive, Pink discusses an early research study, which involved pre-school children who were divided into three groups. One group, “the expected award group” of children were asked if they wanted to draw for a special award certificate (extrinsic motivation). The second group, “the unexpected award group” were asked if they wanted to draw and were given an award when they finished drawing. The third group “the no award group” were asked if they wished to draw, but were not promised an award, nor presented with an award at the end of the drawing session (intrinsic motivation). When researchers returned weeks later to observe the three groups of children, they discovered that the children in the expected award group had far less interest in drawing, as compared to the other two groups, who had not been offered an award to draw. Furthermore, the unexpected award group, who had been given the award at the end of the session, did not exhibit any greater interest in drawing, as compared to the group which had not received an award at all. The researchers concluded, (and this type of experiment has been replicated over and over again with different age groups), that if a child (or adult) is asked to solve a difficult problem or task, with the promise of a reward, they only act to receive the award and typically do not display further interest in the task. It turns out that the promise of rewards or the threat of punishment dampens a child’s interest in deeper learning or further exploration.

Due to the consistent and controversial results of the research into motivation, in 1999 a group of researchers “reanalyzed nearly three decades of studies” and concluded the following:

Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation…When institutions–families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example–focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior,” they do considerable long-term damage. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 125, no. 6. (cited in Drive)

The research convincingly establishes that it is intrinsic motivation which drives us to go deeper into solving a problem, to learn and to explore further. This has great implications for educators. During our parent  Edge in Education meeting, we explored some of the implications of the research findings and raised questions about how educators and parents can apply what we know about motivation in school or at home.

Punished by Rewards

Many of the ideas and research presented in the book Drive, were first addressed in 1993 in the ground-breaking book by Alfie Kohen, Punish by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. In it, Kohen makes the compelling case, based on numerous research studies, that rewards, like punishment, stunt creativity and are an obstacle to sustained problem solving.

One such study, also cited in by Pink, was conducted as part of a New York University doctoral dissertation, involving 128 undergraduates. Each student was given the same materials: matches, thumbtacks, and the boxes they came in.  The problem students were asked to solve, was how to attach the candle to the wall without dripping wax on the table.

The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

The result was that those students who were offered a significant financial reward “took nearly 50% longer to solve the problem,” as compared to those students who were not offered an incentive. Again these results point to the power of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

The Candle Problem Solved

The Candle Problem Solved

The abundant research about motivation and how we learn, compels educators to rethink traditional practices in favor of facilitating intrinsically motivating learning in our schools. We understand, for example, that using grades as a reward or punishment (extrinsic motivation) does the opposite of promoting deep, sustained learning.

The research leads us to find ways to provide students with choice in their learning, to support students in exploring their own interests and passions, and to discover and draw on what intrinsically motivates them to create and problem solve. Otherwise, we perpetuate a mismatch between what science knows and what school does.


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