I'm a parent, not a teacher, but recently joined the debate about conflicting merits of external rewards and intrinsic motivation. (As always, complaining about stifling systems, not the fabulous teachers constrained by them.) My daughter, Maddy, attended a Montessori school ages 4-14, one that not only purely emphasized the intrinsic coin but also embraced a structure that allowed -- demanded, in fact -- all the time a teacher needed to create democratic, participatory, tailored, intrinsic learning. (With one exception: their middle school teacher said the kids could collectively cut his hair -- their choice among several reward options -- upon successfully pulling off a presentation night for parents; Maddy's philosophy professor dad cried as he listened to his 13-year-old eloquently perform and explain Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Their teacher's hair was a mess for months afterward.)
Admittedly it was a tiny school in a tiny town with full autonomy, and the shoe-string budget such freedom usually implies. But more than half her classmates had one LD label or another. (Several kids were recent transfers after disastrous experiences in other schools.) And the kids flourished.
Despite having never taken a test (standardized or otherwise) or received a report card until 9th grade, and despite her own reading comprehension LD, my daughter subsequently soared in her traditional high school and her current freshman college year, her teachers routinely calling her the dream student -- self-motivated, assertive, self-aware, and full of critical thinking (including when she told both her sophomore English teacher and me that her B-level work was really all she felt interested in doing).
So it was a gut-wrenching shock when my stepson, Alden, entered my life and I became involved in his traditional school experience, full of stickers, silent lunch and select-member pizza parties (not to mention grades, report cards and end-of-year testing). Alden's just as happy, secure and self-poised as Maddy. He's technically smarter, too -- he can grasp new information, concepts and intricacies with lightening speed. And he's far easier to engage - takes about 2 minutes for him eagerly to jump into something new & interesting. AS LONG AS someone else initiates or requires it.
Compared to Maddy & her Montessori alum, he just doesn't know how to find & follow his own curiosities or work tough things out for himself. He doesn't understand the learning process: getting curious, investigating a little, feeling dumb for awhile, things beginning to click, then mastery. At 12 he still resists unless required, he looks for external rewards, he demands exact instructions not so much to guarantee perfection but to make it as easy as possible, and he still considers our computer or video game limits as punishment.
Don't get me wrong -- my daughter said, "I'm bored" more often than my stepson, and I bribed her big on three occasions with stellar results (when she wanted to quit swimming lessons, age 5, and dance, age 14, and once on vacation when she & her best friend had melted down into fueding puddles.)
But when I mentioned to Alden that at his age Maddy & her friends organized & held a wildly successful poetry slam fundraiser -- for passion, not a school assignment -- he was utterly bewildered. "Why did she do that if she didn't have to?" was his reply.