by Erin Campbell, PhD
In our environment today, the use of extrinsic rewards is prevalent everywhere you look. From smiley-face stickers to end-of-year bonuses, rewards are used to motivate us to perform. Candy or stickers for toddlers, trophies for competitive sports, raises in salary tied to performance in jobs, all are extrinsic rewards to motivate us to do better. In school, grades are given to students to measure individual performance and standardized tests measure schools’ performance. States are rewarded monetarily if their schools’ achieve passing performance on these standardized exams.
However, many researchers have argued that, in the end, rewards do a disservice. Studies have shown that children’s motivation, cognitive functioning, creativity and social behaviors are negatively impacted by extrinsic rewards. Dozens of studies have found that individuals (preschool through college) loose motivation for activities when expecting a reward, even when the activity is initially interesting to them. Undergraduate students who were expecting to receive a reward based on their pinball skills showed less interest in playing pinball over time than students’ who expected no reward. Preschool children who were told to do an activity so that they could later engage in a second activity (reward) showed decreased interest in the first activity. Other children who had been offered both activities together, and had not expected a reward, showed no decrease in interest in the first activity.
Expecting and receiving rewards also influences performance. In one study, fifth-grade students read a passage, and were then asked certain questions. The questions were used to determine how much they liked the passage, how difficult it was and how much pressure they felt. They were then asked to read a second passage and informed that they would be asked the same questions. Some of these children were also told that when they finished reading the passage they would be tested and graded on it. Those who thought they would be graded did achieve better rote recall immediately after the reading, yet had forgotten more of the passage a week later. More importantly, those who did not expect a test or grade showed significantly greater conceptual learning than the students who were
expecting the test.
In Montessori schools there are no grades. However, there are a myriad of ways that children are evaluated, either by teachers, peers or personally. One way of evaluation is inherent in the design of the materials. In many materials there exists a control for error by the student. Often, a child can easily see if he has made an error when there is a piece left over upon completion of some work or a piece doesn’t fit properly. For example, the Wooden Cylinders in the Children’s House are a set of graduated cylinders where each cylinder fits precisely into an appropriate hole. If a child places a cylinder into a hole that is too large, she will have a cylinder left over that will not fit into any other hole. The child can clearly see if she has made an error and can solve the problem.
Additionally there are control and standard materials for children to check their work against, personally evaluating their own work. The use of the large Wooden Maps in the Children’s House incorporates the use of a standard “Control Map” for children to notice and correct errors on a map they have made. Children can find their own errors, rather than having the teacher point out the errors. Because there are no grades, and the learning goal is paramount, there is no sense in which the children would be cheating if they were to refer to the control map too early. What engages the children is the task of working on the map.
Children also look to their peers for feedback on things they are working on. In Elementary classrooms, a teacher will ask a child to find peers to read over their work
and offer suggestions and corrections. If a child questions another child’s “correction”, they can check in a book, or with another child, or ask the teacher. These children also get feedback indirectly from peers through peer teaching. There is nothing which makes you learn more than teaching someone else.
Teachers also evaluate the children by observation and in lessons. The lessons given in Montessori classrooms involve three periods: association, recognition, and recall. Through these lessons, the teacher has the opportunity to evaluate whether a child has mastered key concepts. During the first period the teacher describes or names the material or idea, saying, “This is a __________”. Next, the teacher tests recognition, saying something like, “Show me the ____________”. If the child appears to understand the concept, the teacher moves on to the third period of the lesson, asking, “What is this?” The lessons may be covered in a short amount of time, or take many days. The teacher repeats presentations until she feels that the child understands the concept – continually evaluating the child.
In summary, Dr. Montessori saw that extrinsic rewards were not needed to motivate children who were already interested in learning. Current educational and psychological research supports her conclusions. Consequently, she developed a set of materials and a method of learning that could be self-correcting and where intrinsic motivation to learn is strong.