Educating Children to Make the Right Choices and Decisions Throughout Life

Educating our children for success in life – one of the major aims of successful parenting and education – often eludes or challenges us due to a misunderstanding of what education for success in life actually means.

Too often parents and educators are given a message that successful education is compliant children who do well in their final year at secondary school so that they have choice in their career pathway. Or for children in less affluent societies, or remote and indigenous communities the message is singular, the goal of successful education is improved numeracy and literacy at the expense of everything else!!  And it goes on and on, NAPLAN, my school website, all perpetuating the myth that as long as children are compliant, numerate, literate and do well on standardized testing the job of the educator has been done!

Successful education is so much more than this – education is for the ‘whole child’. In addition to numeracy and literacy, successful learners require a myriad of other skills including creative thinking, lateral thinking, divergent thinking, problem solving, persistence, resilience, effective communication skills, risk taking in healthy ways and to be motivated to make the right choices and decisions in the absence of punishment and reward!

Making the right choice because we want a reward or fear punishment (carrot or the stick) is extrinsic motivation and typically include stickers, stars, lollies, promises of things to come, bribes, threats, detention and reprimand.

The common outcry from some teachers is …… why can’t I use stickers and stars – the children love it, why can’t I give a prep child a lolly for working well or lining up?  The answer is twofold. Firstly the use of extrinsic motivation relies on a carrot and stick approach – setting reward or punishment as the default position for children making choices.  In addition as children get older the carrot and stick need to get bigger and better by the moment!  It has been proven over and again that extrinsic motivation results in very short term behavior change – handing out a star, sticker or lolly to the grade 6 children is not going to support or sustain children being motivated from within themselves as they grow older.

Secondly and more profoundly, is the fundamental issue that extrinsic motivation does not help our children to:

  • Make the right choices from within themselves
  • Take responsibility themselves for their actions
  • Become successfully intrinsic learners
  • Become considerate responsible members of our society.

In our parent presentations Kathy and I often use these two examples to highlight the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

When you child turns 18 years and is driving their car, if they have been parented and educated using:

  • Intrinsic motivation – they are likely to drive down the road within the speed limit to keep themselves and their passengers safe.
  • Extrinsic motivation – they are likely to drive down the road within the speed limit because they know there is a speed camera down the road.

These differences are fundamental to the way an individual lives their life and operates within society.

Intrinsic motivation needs to be modeled and embedded in our education system as part of every teachers practice.  Ask yourself the following questions:

Do we encourage children to contribute to a writing competition because there is a wonderful prize for the winner or do we encourage the children to have a go, do their best and participate so they can enjoy the experience and do their own personal best?

Do we give children stickers because they have lined up or are sitting still or do we affirm the children for making the right choice to show respect, responsibility to listen to the person speaking?

Do we praise our children that their work is wonderful and fantastic all of the time or do we acknowledge and affirm the effort, the choices the skill and endeavor?

Do we punish a child for abusive language towards another child in the playground by keeping them in? Or do we work with the consequence that because the child has chosen not to be respectful to others in the playground he has forgone the privilege to be in the playground with his peers?

Some may brush this off with it all being a matter of semantics – it’s all the same!  This couldn’t be further for the truth; there are profound differences in the culture of children determined by how they are motivated at home and at school.

It is of greatest importance that schools model a culture of intrinsic motivation particularly in communities where parenting is dominated by extrinsic motivation.  The cycle of extrinsically motivating children is often perpetuated the more challenging the behavior becomes.  The irony is that extrinsic practice does little to make a fundamental change in behavior – it just attempts to contain.  In contrast intrinsic motivation when embedded and is consistently used makes a fundamental change to behavior.

It is not really a debate or question of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation. All the evidence proves we need to use intrinsic motivation – the question is how does a school change practice? The shift needs to be a philosophical and cultural change for the school and community.  There needs to be an expectation that all children and families should have consistency and continuity of practice as they move through their schooling – and that this practice is evidence based. This all comes down to schools driving their teaching and learning practice from overarching evidence-based philosophy. This includes embracing a culture of intrinsic motivation as a major strategy for teaching, learning, behavior, relationships, interactions and attitudes.

There are fact sheets and podcasts for parents and teachers on our website related to embedding intrinsic motivation at school and at home.  The core elements are to understand the difference between praise and encouragement and how to utilse natural consequences.

Shona Bass

Note: The only place for extrinsic motivation is for children with special needs or for those who have become entrenched in a challenging behavior and a short term circuit breaker is required.