top of page

Move Over Carrots and Sticks

As I reflect on remote learning with other music educators, I find the topic of student motivation comes up often. Some students participated and engaged in remote learning while many others did not. This fall many of us are wondering how we can engage more students in learning especially if we are thrown back into remote learning for periods of time.

I recently watched Daniel Pink’s Ted talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. He challenges our very thoughts on what motivates us as humans. At the beginning of the Ted talk, he shares the candle problem created by a psychologist, Karl Duncker in the 1930’s. Participants sit at a table near a wall with a candle, some tacks, and a book of matches. The task is to fix the candle to the wall so the candle does not drip wax on the table. After a little trial-and-error, many realize the solution is to empty the box of tacks, tack the box to the wall, and light the candle. If you are unfamiliar with this experiment, view the short video below.

What participants have to do in this experiment is get over what he calls “functional fixedness.” Often at the beginning of the task, we don’t think to use the tack box in a different way. The task is inherently creative and does not have a direct set path for the solution.

Years later in the 1960’s, Sam Glucksberg, a psychologist at Princeton University, used the candle problem to test carrots (rewards) on two groups of participants. Each group was timed on how long it took them to complete the candle problem. The first group was not offered a carrot but the second group was. If the work was one of the fastest times, they received $5.00 and if it was the fastest time, they received $20.00.

Many of us would assume that the second group was more productive with the incentives. Contrary to that, the second group, on average, performed three and half minutes longer than the first group. Danial Pink in his book, Drive, states

“ incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity ended up clouding thinking and dulling creativity. Why? Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus. That’s helpful when their’s a clear path to a solution. They help us stare ahead and race faster. But “If-then” motivators are terrible for challenges like the candle problem. As this experiment shows, the rewards narrow people’s focus and blinkered the wide view that might have allowed them to see new uses for old objects.”

We have known for many, many years that what science tells us and what we do in business and in schools are at odds with each other. Carrots and sticks don’t work when engaged in creative, novel, or noble tasks. In education we state that we need students that are self-starters, can problem solve, be creative and think critically because many of our algorithmic tasks are being replaced by computers. The workforce is changing. Yet we continue to riddle our school with carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments) thinking we will get a different outcome.

It’s time for carrots and sticks to move over. Daniel Pink encourages us to stop managing people for compliance but engage them by self-direction. We do this by motivating people intrinsically with autonomy, purpose, and mastery.

Some companies and schools have allowed time for a FedEx day or 20% time. A FedEx day is a day for employees to work on an innovative project. It is a FedEx day because you deliver some kind of project over night. 20% time is similar where employees are given 20% of their work time to work on something innovative of their choice. Not only do they have complete autonomy on what they work on but who they work with, and what product they will create. Many successful projects have come from this 20% time such as Gmail, Google News and the Post it Note. Schools often call this 20% time, Genius Hour, and give students an hour (or whatever time they can give) a week to learn and create whatever they would like. For a great music example, visit Theresa Hoover Ducassoux’s blog, Off the Beaten Path in Music to learn more about her experience with her Genius Hour, she calls “Mozart Minutes.”

We can shift our thinking and change the business and school environment to intrinsically motivate people instead of extrinsically motivating them with carrots and sticks. For instance, instead of grading students to attend a concert, give them some ownership in the concert and have them select some of the repertoire, create program notes, and let them introduce the selections at the concert. By continually finding ways to offer autonomy, mastery, and purpose, we can shift learning environments to a much more productive and engaging experience where students take charge of their learning and become self-starters, critical thinkers and solve problems with creative solutions.

Daniel Pink ends his Ted talk by saying, “If we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our business, we can solve a lot of those candle problems and maybe, maybe, maybe, we can change the world.“

I think when we talk with each other about school this fall and how we plan to help students through this time of uncertainty and change, we start with our own instruction and learning environment and look for ways to spark student motivation. Eliminate the carrots and sticks and find more ways to provide our students with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Featured Posts 
Recent Posts 
Find Me On
  • Pinterest Social Icon
  • Facebook Long Shadow
  • Twitter Long Shadow
bottom of page