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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Classroom Management
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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.

cathyv's picture

I think that we both over estimate and underestimate our students. Many career postions rely on the fact that we as humans also desire extrinisic motivation whether it has a monetary value of fame or fortune. As we develop we move from being extrinsically motivated to being more intrinsically motivated. Why then is it that we would expect our students to want to learn simply because they have an intrinsic desire? For those students that have an intrinsic desire, that desire usually comes from the praise they get for doing well, or the good feeling they get because they have done well and possibly made someone else, whom they care about, happy. However, I don't think that money is the necessary answer. It's not the "value" of the reward it's simply the concept of the reward itself. Rewards can come in many forms such as earning a special privelage, a smile, a positive affirmation, a positive note on a paper, tickets that can be earned and saved up to "buy" a small token item or time to do something special. Parents can also contribute to this process by providing their child with positive motivation. Their children can "earn" small token items, silly bowling night (with plastic pins at home, silly bowling on the wii, or a couple games of bowling at the real bowling alley), a picnic at the park (or in the middle of the living room) maybe even on a school night, hanging the paper with the good grade up on the wall or the positive note from the teacher up on the wall (brag wall) - any wall in your home will do all it takes is a little scotch tape. Our wall is an open wall near our front door and if we have overflow we hang things on their bedroom doors. We rotate papers to replace old with new and the special papers can "stick" around longer on their bedroom doors. Sometimes a reward is a single cookie in their lunch with a note that praises them for their accomplishments. Other times it's a "happy dance" accompanied by a "yippee". At the end of the card marking we celebrate their successes with a special dinner that they pick out and plan. Children want attention, they want to be celebrated and they want to feel loved. If children don't get positive affirmation they will behave negatively to get attention, they will do what is necessary to get attention. I'd rather "catch them being good" and make a big deal out of it than punish them. With enough positive extrinisic affirmation and motivation students will start to want to do well because of their own internal drive or intrinsic motivation. Our hope is that their desire to succeed moves from the earning of "token rewards", to earning praise, to succeeding on ones own internal desire. No matter how far along they progress through this development we, as parents and educators, want it to be a positive (feel good) experience. When people feel good about themselves they are more likely to perform higher and try to learn new things. I'm not disparaging using punishment because sometimes it is also necessary. But I think that having a rewards and punishment system is much more effective. For example: If I speed while driving I can earn myself a speeding ticket, which will/can increase my insurance rates. If I don't speed I won't get a speeding ticket and my insurance rates will possibly lower over time if I maintain a good driving record. We as adults operate on rewards and punishments so why would we expect our children to just do what's right because it is right? Celebrate your childrens' and students' small successes and those will lead to larger successes, almost guaranteed.

Amanda Vail's picture

It's been my experience this year with a few misbehaviors that they don't allow for the ready to learners time to be set up. They begin at the start to disrupt and misbehave so attention is drawn to them. They don't care about the ready to learners nor care to be ready to learners,
or get in that line only to become disrupters of others learning Engagement is not their forte. It's been a problem with these few for four years. What then?

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Amanda, there is an approach called collaborative & proactive solutions that really helps with students who misbehave often. If you go to this link you'll find a lot of resources and an overview of the approach: In general, the idea is that students who misbehave aren't willfully trying to disrupt your class, and they do indeed care - there is just something getting in their way (whether it be a lack of skill, a social/emotional challenge, etc). Shifting to a problem-solving stance can make a world of difference.

Cagri Kanver's picture
Cagri Kanver
Interested in Education Information

Make students feel like education is a choice, not a requirement. You know the bunch of non-engaged students. As simple as it sounds, remind them that they are making the right choice by showing up and working hard.

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