The Timely Death of Carrots and Sticks as a Motivating Tool

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 


Over the past several weeks, I had the chance to read Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams, Will Richardson’s Why School?, and reread Dan Pink’s Drive to better understand the fundamental changes our nation is facing in relation to the motivation of learners. The common denominator of all three works — the industrial education system has a definite expiration date.

At younger and younger ages, students are more disengaged in school because they see that it does not tap into who they are, does not connect to what they are passionate about, and does not value them as powerful change agents.

Consider the traditional model of motivating learners via “carrots and sticks.”

The Carrot (reward-focus)

  • IF you simply pay attention and do your work every day…
  • THEN you will get the grades and diplomas you need to continue on to college AND you will have a successful life.

The Stick (penalty-focus)

  • IF you do not pay attention and do not do your work every day…
  • THEN you will need to give up your free time to get you back on track OR you will become a miserable failure.

While this may have worked in the 20th century economic model — IF employees followed preset directions and the chain of command, THEN individual success could be reasonably expected. However, it does not work in a 21st century economy where the world is increasingly interconnected, unpredictable, and fast-paced.

The industrial education system as we know it cannot be saved, nor should it. But how do we deal with the messiness of moving from a world where knowledge was scarce to a new world where abundance is everywhere?

  1. Our challenge as educators is not to control the information but rather teach students to navigate, to discern truth, to create, to contribute knowledge, and to become invested in community problems.
  2. Our challenge as educators is to move from a fear-based to a passion-filled learning structure. If learners are intrinsically committed to a given topic, problem, or profession, they will learn. The challenge is designing customized curricula around what learner(s) are fascinated by rather than marching through topics and texts.
  3. Our challenge as educators is to have students own the learning process through setting a goal, doing the work, seeking out feedback, improving performance, and documenting accomplishments.
  4. Our challenge as educators is to break down traditional classroom walls to connect learners to experts and audiences that go way beyond the schoolhouse door.
  5. Our challenge as educators is to imagine an assessment system that measures 21st century skills (e.g. problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, information literacy) through the use of knowledge.

So many major initiatives that have cycled through schools over the past several decades will once again be resurrected (e.g. creative problem solving, differentiation, inquiry-focused curriculum, portfolios, project-based learning, reading and writing across the curriculum, outcomes-based education, professional learning communities, rubric development, school within a school) as we try to walk out of the 20th century cave into the daylight. The voices are getting louder that what school is for needs to be reconceptualized from the ground up. Welcome to the unknown — an education where anything is possible.




0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments