Engaging Without Carrots & Sticks

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Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm and I were recently asked by educator and author Larry Ferlazzo to respond to the question: HOW CAN WE  KEEP STUDENTS ENGAGED WITHOUT CARROTS & STICKS?  My response originally appeared at Education Week here and was cross posted at my blog

Becoming a father and making the transition to teaching primary students (as a vice principal) has made it very clear to me that our kids begin their lives with an inquisitive mind and an enviable level of excitement for learning.  Primary students seem to have an energetic curiosity and require very little motivation for engagement; however, as these students progress through our system and the focus moves from the child to the curriculum and learning to grades, they often seem to lose that drive.  We, as parents and educators, often influence a shift in this drive by focusing on results and external motivators.  By dangling things such as grades, praise, prizes, awards, and threats of punishment, we unintentionally rob students of responsibility and their intrinsic drive for learning; we alter the focus to what they will get rather than what they are doing.  By the time students reach high school, their inquisitive desire to learn is often shifted to a quest for grades. For those students who do not see relevance and purpose in this quest, they often disengage as learners and then we feel the need to resort to motivating by offering carrots and threatening sticks.

I strongly believe that (to adapt from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, researchers of motivation at the University of Rochester and written about by Daniel Pink), we cannot motivate students; we can only create the conditions in which students can motivate themselves.  We cannot MAKE kids learn; we can make them behave a certain way, memorize and complete tasks in the short-term when we are supervising them but this does not mean they are gaining the skills and receiving the support needed to be learners.

Even in a system dominated by curricula, scores, and grades, we can still work to tap into that intrinsic drive by focusing on:

  1. Relationships – a trusting, caring relationship helps students to understand the learning is about them rather than test scores and curricula. In order for us to make the curriculum relevant to their learning we must build relationships with our students.
  2. Ownership – Work WITH students so they have a voice in their learning. Through a focus on Assessment For Learning, we include students in assessments and provide ongoing dialogue around descriptive feedback (rather than grades) based on agreed upon criteria and goals.  Harvard professor and author Dr. Ross Greene states that “all students can do well if they can”; we need to provide the feedback on behaviour and learning skills so kids can do well. Too, we need to include students in this conversation.
  3. Choice – Provide students with more autonomy of HOW they will learn and demonstrate their learning.
  4. Relevancy – Relate the curriculum to the interests and passions of our students. They need to see meaningful connections and purpose for real learning to occur.
  5. SuccessTom Schimmer, a BC author and leader in Assessment for Learning, says that we need to “over prepare ‘em” for that first summative assessment.  Push back those first few assessments and ensure students do well then build on this experienced success. We need to focus on strengths, support the challenges, and help students have a growth mindset so they can experience failure and success as feedback and develop the belief they can all be learners.

Our students arrive at school motivated to learn. Through accountability measures and other structures we are often forced to produce short-term results. Unfortunately, this can lead to the use of extrinsic motivators which place the focus away from the learning and on the immediate result rather than the skills and support needed for long-term engagement and success. As educators, we must continue to work to create the conditions to best support our students so that they can maintain that intrinsic drive for learning and not become someone who only reaches for that dangled carrot.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.  




  1. I may have commented on the original piece about carrots and sticks, but had to add this: just blogged yesterday about what I have always believed is the key motivator of any student. If a teacher will create, or allow students to find, dissonance, they will respond. DIssonance is the difference between the way the world is and the way we want it to be, and experiencing dissonance creates the opportunity for students to take a personal stake in what they are learning and why they should care. I explain my approach and ideas more fully at on my blog; link to yesterday’s blog is:http://wp.me/p2gT3m-2V.

    April 27, 2012
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Hey Grant – enjoyed your blog and tweeted it out. The thing that stands out for me from your words is that quest to look deeper and more personal. We often resort to doing things that are only surface-level “solutions” and we fail to look at asking the real questions. Well said.

      May 1, 2012
  2. Thanks Grant and Chris for writing down your ideas and giving me the chance to think more about a topic I seem to focus on! I totally believe the idea of student engagement is 100% in the hands of teachers and schools. I have tapped out my ideas more fully, if you are interested, take a look at:





    April 29, 2012
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Thanks Lori! We seem to be on the same journey around diving deeper into creating the conditions for our students. Your posts are a great addition to this conversation! thanks!

      May 1, 2012
  3. Bill Horniak said:

    I agree with all you have shared yet the one that resonated with me is “Relevancy – Relate the curriculum to the interests and passions of our students. They need to see meaningful connections and purpose for real learning to occur.” I think that teachers are to caught up in following whatever the curriculum is and just trying to get through it instead of focosing cognizantly on what and how they can make the subbject matter/material relevant and therefore interesteing. Many teachers who I have spoken to reiterate the same yet due to “getting through the curriculum” in order to have their kids prepared for their state mandqated & summative assessments they are time strapped consequently. So again, just regurgitating what some expert outside the classroom deems important…. Thoughts?

    April 30, 2012
    • Chris Wejr said:

      This is a very important issue, Bill. Although we do not have the same pressures in BC (and are actually discussing making the curriculum less so we can go deeper), I always have questioned whether getting through the curriculum actually creates a condition for learning to take place. Getting through the curric is about teaching rather than learning and I can only imagine the tension between what a teacher wants to do and what they are forced to do. Because of these added pressures, we have often resorted to external/extrinsic motivators just to get us through the day/week/month. I really hope the US policy makers begin to listen to their educators and move away from this race in which no other countries are involved. So my thoughts… I hear you… and I would just start small with changing the assignments for a unit so they are more relevant and build from there.

      May 1, 2012
  4. I really enjoyed reading this as I have given out treats in the classroom. In the secondary setting, excitement wanes greatly. Student motivation to meet self-designed goals seems like a start and deeper student goals is the direction that I would like to pursue. So much of todays learning is based on test scores since our district is on the pay for performance plan or Effectiveness and Results (E & R.) Motivating students to increase each test score is difficult and usually some form of reward is presented. Award assemblies are given twice per year in my middle school. I will be deeply pondering and analyzing the article as well as others attachments and other info out there about motivating secondary students in high-risk or 80% free and reduced districts.

    Thanks again,

    Jennifer Wells

    May 7, 2012
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Ugh… pay for performance. As Diane Ravitch says “the idea that never works…. and never dies.” You have first hand experience of what happens when rewards are given for results, regardless of process. The focus becomes on getting good at the result… and becomes harmful in the long run. All I can say is that forming relationships and focusing on coaching in between tests will likely increase test scores… but that takes away from the whole point. IN a system set up to be a race… you never get excellence from all, just from a select few. Thanks for chiming in and adding some personal thoughts and reflections.

      May 7, 2012
  5. Jaime Stacy said:

    I work in a middle school. I feel this is the age where relationships play the biggest factor in student success. In general, elementary students are mostly people pleasers, high schoolers want to graduate, and middle schoolers aren’t quite sure what they want. What they need are positive relationships with the teachers they work with. If they feel their teacher “likes” them, they will work for them. While it shounds simple, developing a meaningful relationship with students while providing top-notch instruction is an art form.

    May 8, 2012
  6. Danyelle Maddox said:

    Extrinsic motivation can be used to develop students intrinsic motivation as well. Working at a PBIS school, I used the school wide extrinsic tool to motivate students during a difficult activity. Interestingly, some students became so engrossed in the activity that they no longer wanted the external motivation, they just wanted the personal satisfaction of knowing their work paid off. However, I agree that the aforementioned elements are critical in facilitating the internal drive.

    June 6, 2012

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