In the world of education, motivation is a highly debated, often dissected pursuit that the entirety of student achievement at times seems to rest upon. It is almost a buzzword--important enough to be considered and mentioned at staff meetings and vague enough that everyone seems to know exactly what it means.
I've been told to abide by two different philosophies of motivation at different times by different people on my journey to understand education.
One voice repeats the the phrase, "The carrot and the stick."
The other: "For the joy of learning."
We have the battle cries of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, respectively, locked in a struggle that few will engage openly in but most have opinions about. Classrooms revolve around these two options--some a mixture of the two while others, a harsh polarity.
I am currently harboring the belief that there is no such thing as intrinsic reward. I am defining it as it was defined for me by a professor somewhere along the way: "Intrinsic reward is the pursuit of learning because someone sees value in the pursuit, not because they get something out of it."
There are teachers that reward students with homework passes, candy, erasers--things that can be tangibly given or allowed and so controlled by the teacher. I understand the allure. When you give stuff to kids because they have met a certain standard, it is you that gets to give it, which means you get to set the standard. When the job of the educator seems to be about setting certain behavioral standards and getting students to meet them, this seems like a great strategy. The dark side of this reward system is the punishment, the stick, that is employed according to the same strategy. If a child doesn't meet expectations, present some unpleasant stimulus so they will associate performance of the undesirable behavior (or lack of preferred one) with pain or discomfort (I feel like I stole this from Locke. See "Some Thoughts Concerning Education). For some, this philosophy fits with certain expectations of teachers and visions for our school system. For others, it doesn't.
The other side of this, as its been described for me, is the belief that a teacher should create situations and learning opportunities where a child is driven to meet expectations solely because it is a good venture and that meeting these expectations is a reward in itself. Get the child to see the virtue in what they are doing, they say, and you will have a free, happy, and learned child. I get this. I have fought for this camp mostly out of a love for Freire's insistence on educators being responsible for the raising up of free people that are free from the authority and direction of others, that possess a critical consciousness. But my thoughts have changed a bit.
Does anyone really do anything without reward though? Is there even such a thing as a pure pursuit of virtue without receiving a prize at the finish line? Many of the activities I thought children were pursuing because they valued virtue were really just attempts to harmonize patterns in their mind and so coax their brains to hand over the all-powerful dose of dopamine. The human mind wants to create order, to detect patterns, and reconcile incongruity. When we do this, we get chemically rewarded because it means we have learned to understand the rules of life a little more, the boundaries of the playing field a little better, and so have a better chance of surviving and succeeding in it. Its the animal that remembers where to find food in winter that gets to survive.
Every pursuit of man is driven by hope of reward. It is best described, in the purest sense of the term, as hedonism. We learn because we seek the reward that comes from growth, the expansion of our conscious, the connecting of our neurons. That hit of dopamine.
It seems to only come down to a matter of what kind of reward, and more specifically, how it is delivered. It can be obtained externally, in the form of some tangible physical item, experience, or permission, like a happy face on the board next to your name (public praise), a homework pass (freedom from struggle/increased choice of what to do with your time), a piece of candy (again, chemical satisfaction), etc. Or it can be obtained internally, where the satisfaction is found on the other side of the students pursuit. Instead of being given or granted, it is found or discovered. External reward is defined by the actions of an other while internal reward is marked by the actions of the individual.
Now granted, this is very much a grey zone. I think reward can be a combination of both, and that good instruction is usually a conglomeration of both, but I want to set that aside for the sake of the argument.
The real issue seems to come down to who is the one giving the reward. Is it from the hand of someone else or the natural result of the student's own work/motion? My belief is that education exists to raise students up into people that pursue their own learning, that understand their own realities and are free to act upon it. Individual agency, if you will. The second you train them to receive that reward from the hand of another, you make them dependent and lessen their independence. They become used to, or dependent on the other to reward them. Children raised that way will enter situations always looking for the approval of others instead of something a little more elevated.
I want children to become people that go after a thing because they find value in it. This necessitates receiving reward on the other end of their effort or work.
Our job then, as teachers, is to create situations where students can find that harmony, that congruence on their own. Its the parable of giving a woman a fish versus teaching her. It is found in those, "Oh, now I understand" statements we covet. We don't want children to become dependent on our rewards to motivate them. There is more than enough reward out there for them to discover on their own if we spend a little more time creating situations that guide them towards it. Those experiences will be much more empowering.