Want to Raise Young Leaders? Don't Hand Out Rewards So Easily

A 30-year study shows that building a student's intrinsic motivation works, not giving them prizes.

In my first year teaching I gave my students so much candy as reward for behaving that my class had a cavity epidemic. I was afraid that if I didn't bribe my students with candy they wouldn't participate. And I wasn't alone. Lots of teachers hand out small rewards, from candy to stickers, as a way of encouraging good work.

But according to research from Allen Gottfried, a professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton, receiving all those external rewards might actually stunt the development of a student's leadership abilities.

In order to figure out what factors—parent support, IQ, personality, or social skills—help a child develop into an adult leader, Gottfried began studying 106 Orange County, California children in 1979 when they were just 1 year old. He regularly interviewed the children and their parents until they turned 29, and he found that sparking a child's intrinsic motivation is key to developing leadership skills.

Gottfried told the Harvard Education Letter that his research team found that ensuring students have constant opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge helps them develop that intrinsic motivation. However, that "doesn’t mean you say yes to everything the kid wants," says Gottfried. Instead, letting students follow their passions is what drives them to persevere until they achieve their goals—which is what leaders do.

"That quality is very relevant because when you are a leader you have to delve into a world that is uncharted," says Adele Gottfried, a professor of educational psychology at Cal State Northridge who co-authored the academic papers on the research with her husband. The "everyday leaders" identified in the research "enjoyed tackling problems and finding solutions and did not view it as a chore," she says.

As for my own classroom, I eventually came around and stopped handing out candy. It took me some time to learn how to shift to the model, and while the transition wasn't smooth, it was a relief to finally see students begin to take risks and answer questions simply because they wanted to learn more about something.

Unfortunately, modern schools are hip deep in the external-reward cycle—passing out stickers and certificates, or offering lunch with the teacher or the principal. However, as Gottfried's research shows, allowing students to learn by doing is what's needed, not more prizes.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Enokson

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