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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"The fox leapt high to grasp the grapes, but the delicious-looking fruit remained just out of reach of his snapping jaws. After a few attempts the fox gave up and said to himself, 'These grapes are sour, and if I had some I would not eat them.' The fox changes his attitude to fit his behavior." - Aesop’s Fables

There is a general misconception that our beliefs are the cause of our actions. Often it is the other way around.

Just like the fox, people will tell themselves a story to justify their actions. This helps to protect their ego during failure or indicate why they committed a certain action. Teachers need to place students in situations where they can persuade themselves that they were intrinsically motivated to behave a certain way or to carry out certain actions.

Punishment, Rewards, and Commitment

The issue with classroom management policies in most institutions is that it operates on a carrot-and-stick model. Carrots include PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), Classroom Economy, and other class rewards. Sticks include punishment such as detention, suspension, or withholding from other activities. Teachers and educational leaders believe that these measures will help control the students. However, self-persuasion produces more powerful and longer-lasting benefits than direct techniques of persuasion produce. The key is letting the students convince themselves.

The goal of self-persuasion is to create cognitive dissonance in the mind of the one being persuaded. Cognitive dissonance is characterized by holding opposing thoughts. (Example: "I am a good person, but I just lied.") This produces discomfort, and humans put pressure on themselves to reduce or eliminate the dissonance by telling themselves a story. (Example: "The teacher made me lie.")


In 1965, Jonathan Freedman conducted a study in which he presented preschoolers with an attractive, desired, "Forbidden Toy." One group was told not to touch it or they would be severely punished, and the other group was told not to touch the toy because it was wrong. He left the room, and the preschoolers stayed away from the toy. Afterward, the children were asked how much they wanted the toy. The severe threat group still really wanted it, but the mild threat group were less interested.

Weeks later, Freedman pulled the students out of class one by one and had them do a drawing test. While he examined their drawings, he allowed them to play with any toy they wanted. Of the severe threat group, 77 percent played with the Forbidden Toy, while only 33 percent of the moderate threat group engaged with it. This latter group had to justify to themselves why they did not want to play with the Forbidden Toy since the external motivation (the degree of punishment) was not strong enough by itself. Therefore, they convinced themselves that the toy was not very attractive.

Recently studies (PDF) have shown that using fear in high-stakes testing actually lowers performance on that test.


Programs like Classroom Economy may appear to work because the extrinsic rewards offer short-term motivation. Stanford's Mark Lepper and David Greene found that those being offered a reward "tended to work more quickly," yet were less likely to do the puzzles later. Extrinsic motivation is found in meta-analysis (PDF) after meta-analysis to produce only short-term effects (at best).


The goal here is getting people to commit to something, but it has to be their own decision. According to Robert Cialdini's Six Principles of Influence, "Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment."

Punishment and rewards may have their place in certain circumstances, but we should never rely on these methods to persuade the class to comply with requests. Instead, classrooms should model their management on self-persuasion.

7 Examples of Self-Persuasion

1. Two Lines

Dan Pink, in his show Crowd Control, got people to stop double dipping their chips in guacamole by setting up bowls for double dippers and single dippers. Before class, form two lines called "Ready to Learn" and "Going to Misbehave." Then have students select a line to stand in.

2. Questions With a Scale

In the book Instant Influence, Yale Professor Dr. Michael Pantalon describes a counterintuitive way for people to persuade themselves.

First ask students, "On a scale of one to ten, how ready are you to . . . ?"
Then ask, "Why didn't you pick the lower number?"

For example: "On a scale of one to ten, how likely are you to do your homework tonight?" The follow-up question is key to their persuading themselves that they are likely to complete the task.

3. The Goal Sheet

A simple form, filled out every class period, has students commit to learning at the beginning of the class, and then has them review their commitment at the end of class.

4. Student-Created Rules

Have the students set the class rules. Violating those rules creates cognitive dissonance.

5. Public Goals

If students publicly declare goals, they become accountable not only to themselves, but to others as well. No one wants to think of him- or herself as a hypocrite. Therefore, we convince ourselves that our commitment should be honored or we would feel this shame.

6. Remind by Asking

If you tell students what they are supposed to be doing, it may cause psychological reactance, an aversive reaction caused by a real or perceived reduction in autonomy or freedom. However, if you ask students what they are going to do, the freedom to choose is one of the most persuasive tactics ever found.

7. Commitment Cards

This is one reason that the De La Salle High School football team holds the record for the longest winning streak. They all made commitment cards each week and were held accountable by a partner.

In conclusion, self-persuasion takes patience and some critical thinking. But when it's May and the class next door is still unmotivated through rewards and punishments, your own class will be asking you for more.

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Paul Gavoni, Ed.D's picture

I agree with much of what you've written. I'd suggest there is a piece missing. Guys like Daniel Pink do not understand shaping and fading. The strategies you provide are excellent and should be a goal. The challenge is, what do we do in the meantime for kids who aren't "committed?" What do we do when students don't value education, don't value treating others with respect, don't value the relationship with their teacher? BTW, when I say value, I mean do not find it reinforcing to (fill in blank). This is why it's important to work hard on strengthening relationships with the students... they will adopt what we value/model if they find us reinforcing. If we value a caring school community and model this value through our interactions, we can greatly reduce the need for added reinforcement (e.g. tokens) and added punishment (e.g. time outs) as behaviors will come into contact with naturally occurring reinforcement and punishment through day to day interaction, achievement, etc. Your strategies are very good for building a reinforcing environment and should be part of schools. I'd caution throwing out the baby with the bath water. Our goal should be to help kids find value in these strategies... for those who don't, using "extrinsic" reinforcement is how we slowly move them in that direction. Sorry, texting this, otherwise I'd have more to say. Good points though.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Paul, I think you're right on that some students don't buy into external reinforcements and really need a true internal motivation. Building relationships is the key to figuring out what a student is interested in and how school might help them achieve their own goals. Great points all around.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I agree with you, Paul, and I think it really does come down to helping those less committed students to find value within just our one class. If they have been disengaged from school for many years, it could be a long, slow tug-o-war to bring them back to a place of being motivated. I can't change their entire school experience, but I agree with Alex that genuine, respectful relationships with students in our classroom can get them to take baby steps toward taking an interest and working toward personal goals. (And BTW, very impressive amount of writing via text!)

Lionel Duffield's picture
Lionel Duffield
Sales and marketing manager for last 20 years

Yes, Paul I agree with you. Students do not value education but money. So, what if We reward them with money to learn something??? It will work; isn't it? It's a one kind of studybooster to improve students' education.

Paul Gavoni, Ed.D's picture

Hi, Lionell. I think rewarding students with money would likely open up a huge can of worms. The issues are multivariate. However, I think part of the answer lays somewhere between making schools a more positive and engaging place for students to attend as well as beginning a campaign across the country for educating parents on the importance of instilling the benefits of education in their children. Unfortunately, some parents do not see the benefits because of issues like historical poverty and oppression. In their neighborhoods, schools have not had the impact on their lives and the lives of those around them as the schools do in more affluent areas.

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