George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
"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.

Was this useful? (15)
Classroom Management
What can we do to create a positive dynamic in the classroom?

Comments (42) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (42) Sign in or register to comment

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.

Dianeb56's picture

I like what you've said. I've read through it very quickly. When I have time I am earmarking this section so I can go back and digest all that was presented and all that you've replied. Am working with 8th graders this year who don't seem to be widely invested in their own learning. I'll let you know how it progresses as the year flies by us.

Dianeb56's picture

"However, self-persuasion produces more powerful and longer-lasting benefits than direct techniques of persuasion produce. The key is letting the students convince themselves." I am writing this on my board under our question of the week. How can I as a student convince myself that school is my right and not the drudge I perceive of today? Comments???

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

This is such a tough question to answer, Diane! As we have already seen in this comment thread, relationships in the classroom make a big difference. No matter what we say or teach in our classroom, if our students don't think we care about them as individuals, they won't find the motivation to try. But I think it can really help to show our students how a good education gives them more choices in life -- and I don't mean "wait till you're an adult and you'll see why you need a good education" -- that's too long to wait for unmotivated students. But even in their world right now their efforts in school can pay off with more choices: how will they spend the weekends? which classes will they take in high school? will they get a good summer job, which opens up more choices? Sharing inspirational stories with them, about people who gained more choices because of their efforts to learn, can make these abstract ideas more concrete.

Erika Clerc's picture

I am looking to do the two line rule with my 6th graders as we have just talked about learning for themselves, not for a prize, or a grade, or their parents. But I have some students who if I said "ok you need to pick a line to stand in the i'm ready to learn line or the i'm going to misbehave line" they would stand in the i'm going to misbehave line. How would I handle that?

Pat Hubert's picture
Pat Hubert
Educational Consultant - South Dakota

As I read the article, I couldn't get passed the second section that labels PBIS as a "carrot model". There are some things discussed that are both well-researched and philosophically aligned with my thinking, such as punishment not being effective. But I have a hard time giving any of the information much credence if the only thing the author takes away from PBIS is the reward component. Reinforcement is only one of many critical components to PBIS, not the least of which is data collection and problem solving of behavioral challenges among students. Not to mention common vocabulary/definitions regarding behavior and systemic processes and procedures to manage consequences. Yes, I said consequences.
Please, do a little homework about PBIS implementation (a good start might be... ) before you paint with the broad brush - I have higher expectations from Edutopia.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Erika, I would say if you have students which choose that line to stand in, then divide the class into two groups- have the students in the I'm ready to learn and get them working on something which demonstrates they are ready to learn. Perhaps something utilizing technology or group learning activity where do something highly engaging. Then I would take the other line aside and have a discussion about why they chose that line. Then I would have another learning opportunity set up for them to use but which isn't quite so engaging as the other groups activity. Then afterwards reflect with the group which chose the "misbehaving" line which way they would prefer to learn. Let them know you need ready to learn students who cooperate to do the group or technology learning activities.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.