In my book, Doing The Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks, I write about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Once again, note researchers support the view that people do their best when they are internally motivated not instrumentally motivated. The labels may be different but the results are the same.


In The Secret of Effective Motivation, an article in the SundayReview of the New York Times, writers Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz discuss how internal motivation continually trumps instrumental motivation giving several examples.


They conclude that most people have both forms of motivation but to different degrees.


“If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.


“What mix of motives — internal or instrumental or both — is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But as we and our colleagues argue in a paper newly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.”



After giving an example of West Point Cadets, where they conclude: “We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.

Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.”


Finally, they end the article with what I believe is their major point: if this is both good, and true, for our military leaders, shouldn’t it also be true for our children?


There is a temptation among educators and instructors to use whatever motivational tools are available to recruit participants or improve performance. If the desire for military excellence and service to country fails to attract all the recruits that the Army needs, then perhaps appeals to “money for college,” “career training” or “seeing the world” will do the job. While this strategy may lure more recruits, it may also yield worse soldiers. Similarly, for students uninterested in learning, financial incentives for good attendance or pizza parties for high performance may prompt them to participate, but it may result in less well-educated students.”

And also even more so for the teachers of our children?

The same goes for motivating teachers themselves. We wring our hands when they “teach to the test” because we fear that it detracts from actual educating. It is possible that teachers do this because of an overreliance on accountability that transforms the instrumental consequences of good teaching (things like salary bonuses) into instrumental motives. Accountability is important, but structured crudely, it can create the very behavior (such as poor teaching) that it is designed to prevent.”

We are fighting against the reform of education by those who have yet to grasp what the research on motivation tells us.

When will they listen? What will motivate them?