ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn

Chapter 3: The Psychology of Motivation

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The psychology of motivation generally categorizes the driving forces behind actions into two main types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation springs from within the individual; it’s the internal desire to engage in an activity for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation, conversely, stems from external factors, such as rewards or punishments. 

While education purists would argue for the superiority of intrinsic motivation—a love for learning, a thirst for knowledge—the reality is that this form of motivation isn’t universally applicable. Not all subjects are intrinsically interesting to all students, and not all learning activities are self-rewarding. This is where extrinsic motivators like grades, scholarships, and financial incentives come into play.

The Limitations of Current Motivational Methods

Despite the blending of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in contemporary educational settings, the balance is far from perfect. Grading systems, for example, have a mixed track record. Grades can sometimes boost motivation but often lead to a performance-over-mastery mindset. Students aim for higher grades rather than deeper understanding, choosing the path of least resistance.

Merit scholarships, another form of extrinsic motivation, have shown some success in getting students into colleges but have been less effective in improving long-term academic performance. While they may serve as a short-term motivator, they don’t necessarily foster sustained engagement or mastery of subjects.

The Modern Student in a Gig Economy: Introducing Learning Gigs™

Students today are growing up in a world significantly different from previous generations. Many are part of what’s known as the “gig economy,” where traditional full-time jobs are often replaced by short-term contracts or freelance work—known as “gigs.” This shift in the employment landscape is more than just an economic trend; it’s a cultural shift that influences how young people perceive work, value, and motivation.

That’s where the concept of “learning gigs” comes into play. Borrowing from the language and structure of the gig economy, learning gigs offer students the opportunity to earn money by completing specific academic tasks or achieving particular learning outcomes. These gigs are designed to be modular, allowing students to tackle them at their own pace and on their own schedule. This flexibility reduces the intimidation factor often associated with large, looming standardized tests.

The beauty of learning gigs is that they are attuned to the modern world that students understand and navigate daily. They offer immediate, tangible rewards for specific tasks, aligning closely with the extrinsic motivational factors that the gig economy already capitalizes on. This makes the educational experience less abstract and more immediate, bridging the gap between the academic world and the “real world.”

Comparison with Adult Work Incentives

In the adult world, work provides more than just a paycheck. It offers a sense of purpose, opportunities for skill-building, avenues for social interaction, and the prospect of career advancement. Work is valued not merely for its economic benefits but also for its contributions to personal and societal well-being. 

Why, then, is education often viewed differently—as a gift to be gratefully received rather than a valuable endeavor to be fairly compensated? Just like work, education serves multiple purposes: skill development, future employability, and societal contribution. The time has come to recognize these multi-dimensional benefits and to compensate them accordingly.

Shifting Perceptions: Education as Valued Work

Learning gigs offer a way to align the worlds of education and work more closely. By providing financial incentives tied to specific academic tasks, we acknowledge the value of educational labor. Students are no longer just passive recipients of knowledge; they become active contributors to their learning journey and, by extension, to society at large.

This shifts the narrative from viewing education merely as a gift to be appreciated to seeing it as a form of work that has intrinsic value and deserves compensation. In doing so, we not only tap into extrinsic motivators that are effective in the short term but also lay the foundation for a more profound, intrinsic connection to the learning process.

Today, High schools in general are competing with McDonald’s and Burger King. Students prefer to make money for their immediate wants and needs instead of coming to school.

Larry Burt

Executive Director, DOR, Oakmont Education

Student Perspective

Dayahanna, 10th Grade, Towpath Trails High School in Akron, Ohio 

Do you think students should be paid to learn?

Yes, kids have to get up every week for a whole year from the time they are born to do work and if they don’t their parents can go to jail.

If you make more than $3,000 a year to learn, how would it change your school experience?

I honestly think kids would come to school more.

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