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Motivating Students: Could Pride Be the Best Incentive? 

By Bill Madigan, AVID Staff Developer

“Like any other tool for facilitating the completion of a questionable task, rewards offer a "how" answer to what is really a "why" question.”
Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'S, Praise and Other Bribes

So, about 15 years ago, this principal at a very low performing school in Houston dressed as a little girl and rode a tricycle up and down the halls because he promised he would if the students performed well on a state standardized reading test. Well, they did so well he rode that tricycle up and down the halls for two days, clad in a pink dress and wearing a matching pink bonnet. He was 6’6” tall. He barely managed to peddle that trike, but the kids loved it.  That principal went on to the state level and a very successful career. I visited his school a week after this special event to witness what this remarkable man was doing with his staff, to see if there was something I could bring back to my high school. This made me wonder about incentives and motivation.

Well, now after 27 years as a teacher and staff mentor, a simple idea has revealed itself. This idea is mostly connected to Mary Catherine Swanson’s concept of the “Hidden Curriculum.” The answer is simple: pride of accomplishment AND making those who care for us proud.  This idea is also validated by Daniel Pink’s book Drive and by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work about “flow” experiences.

Last year at an inner city school in San Diego, the administration team of whom I was a part of, shared ideas about how to “incentivize” good performance on the STAR testing. The whole school population was on free and reduced lunch status, and 97% were Latino from primarily one neighborhood. Our team discussed ideas such as giving out prizes like iPods, Starbuck’s gift cards, and dress down days as incentives since they had done this before. Well, with the words of Dr. Richard Curwin (author of Discipline with Dignity) and Daniel Pink ringing in my ears, I offered that those prizes may sound good, but that research says these ‘awards’ could actually de-incentivize performance. In the words of Dr. Curwin, “The greatest motivation in our lives is pride of accomplishment.” I asked them to consider what motivated them the most to be good administrators, and they all shared that doing work that made them feel proud or successful was the key drive in their own work.

So we all agreed that we should lead the students with pride. I added that another key ingredient to motivation is relational capacity: connecting with kids and those close to them. So we fashioned a message we would give at grade-level assemblies:

1. Do well to be proud of yourself.
2. Do well to bring pride to the school.
3. Do well to make those who love you proud of you.

We then split up the message and gave our talks as a team to each grade level. For my message, I confessed how proud I was of them for just getting to school because they all rode the trolley twice a day, which was really a sad gauntlet of emotionally disturbed homeless people who too often harassed them. In addition, our kids had to navigate herds of gang-bangers doing their recruitment work. I finished my message asking them to picture in their minds the person they loved most—their mom, dad, or older brother or sister—and to imagine telling them you will make them proud just before they took the test.

During and immediately after the testing week, several kids told me who they pictured before the tests. Many predictably said, “My mom.”

Well, our API (Academic Performance Index) jumped 34 points! Blasting well past 700, the mark that had been a goal since the school started. I know the rigors of scientific research and double-blind protocols, so I know this result may be from various factors. My gut tells me that this was the silver bullet, though.  Keeping integrity with what actually matters to us as humans is the key, I feel.

I fear we forget the humble structure of our beings. We get blindsided by external structures of incentives such as letter grades, SAT scores, and the like, and we forget that most determination to get good grades or high scores is really about making mom or dad proud of us, or proving to ourselves we can—pride of accomplishment—Si Se Puede!

Bill Madigan has been an educator for 25 years.  He has taught emotionally disturbed and at-risk students, as well as Advanced Placement® learners. He has also been an AVID coordinator and elective teacher for 18 years. Bill has also been a Staff Developer both privately and with AVID for 18 years, teaching brain based learning, as well as English Language Learner best practices.

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.

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