Too much? In my opinion, yes.
Intrinsic motivation is the best outcome for out children, I absolutely agree. There’s no arguing that it’s better for everyone, most importantly the children themselves, if the desire and drive to learn comes from within. And it’s a pretty good indication that things are going well in the classroom when you never use the reward system, because you just don’t need to.
But not all students enter the classroom on September 1st in this frame of mind, and sometimes they don’t get there on September 2nd, or 3rd either. Some of our students are “so demotivated and lacking in self-worth,” often as a result of issues happening outside school, that they need some kind of external motivation to hook them into learning, to help them realise that it is worth the effort required to put in.
I’m sure every teacher can call to mind a child who has a chaotic background, a range of emotional, social and academic issues to deal with and who just can’t seem to focus for long enough to access their learning, no matter how engaging and exciting you make it. With the child I am thinking of, I tried every strategy I knew, and nothing worked, until one day, out of desperation, I bribed him with the promise of a lollipop if he completed his work. It was the first time in three weeks that any real learning was able to take place. Did it solve all his issues? No. Was it a good long term strategy? No. But it was an important initial step in helping him to realise that making good choices has positive consequences. Nothing else in his life so far had taught him that, so I had to start somewhere, with something concrete he could relate to.
You can’t stay in the realm of rewards forever, and they are only ever a short term, temporary solution. But they can be a useful first step to help certain children develop good habits and encourage them to persevere so that they can begin to reap the benefits of their own learning. Sometimes the lollipop, or shiny sticker, is that little piece of self-respect, that small piece of Maslov they need, before they can access Bloom.
And in many ways, aren’t we as adults the same? Almost all the time, I am motivated to do my job because I passionately believe in education and love working with children and colleagues to create the best, most inspiring conditions for learning possible. But during the tough times it is useful to remind myself that going to work is what pays my bills and enables me to buy that pair of shiny shoes that are calling my name. After all, we all need a lollipop sometimes, right?