Pay attention - this is in the exam!

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This is a short story which illustrates how too much extrinsic motivation can kill off intrinsic motivation. Bear this in mind when you try to get your students' attention with lines like, "Pay attention - this is in the exam!". If you do this, you may be killing off any intrinsic interest they might have had for the stuff you are asking them to pay attention to.

The Story

Once upon a time, there was a retired widow called Mrs Smith, who lived in the end house of a long line of terraces in the north of England. The whole of the side of her house was a big brick wall facing onto one of the side streets, and this is where the local boys played football after school. They had drawn a big goal with chalk on the wall, and every afternoon, Mrs Smith would hear the ball banging against the wall, thump, thump, while she was trying to watch her favourite afternoon TV series. 

Thoroughly fed up with this, Mrs Smith went out and asked the boys to go and play football in the park instead. The boys said ok, but as soon as Mrs Smith was inside again, they continued playing against her wall.

Then Mrs Smith came up with a great idea to get rid of the boys. She went out and gave each of them ten pence. There were five of them, so the total cost to her was 50p. They looked astonished and asked what the money was for.

"It's to pay you for your work", said Mrs Smith. "I've got a big problem with dirty pigeons all around my house and garden, making the place filthy. You scare them away when you play here, so I would like to pay you for it. Thank you".

The boys were very pleased to receive the money and went straight off to the sweet shop.

The next day, they were back again, kicking the football against Mrs Smith's wall. After a while, they knocked on the door and asked her for their 10p "payment". But Mrs Smith just said, "No, I'm not paying you any more".

The boys were angry. They said, "Well, if you don't pay, we don't play. We're not working for nothing!". They went off to play in the park and never played outside Mrs Smith's house again.

The Moral

The boys had been intrinsically motivated to play football outside Mrs Smith's house, and needed no pay or other encouragement to do so. But when Mrs Smith paid them, she provided an extrinsic motivation for playing there. This extrinsic motivation replaced their original intrinsic motivation. Once the extrinsic motivation was removed, what remained was no motivation at all.

(This fable is an adaptation of a story in Leo van Lier's book Interaction in the Language Curriculum, Longman 1996)



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