Carrots and sticks won’t give us good teachers

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

Minster of Education Marja van Bijsterveld says pilots have started in vocational schools to reward good teachers with “performance bonuses”. This will encourage others teachers to perform better as well, Van Bijsterveld claims. The science behind human motivation suggests the opposite.

In an article published 3 November in Metro, Van Bijsterveld explained her education policy. Besides putting more responsibility for children’s education on the shoulders of parents, she envisions a business model for public schools in which better performing teachers – those with better performing students – are financially rewarded with “performance bonuses”. The first pilots have already begun in vocational schools.

“Good teachers are invaluable” indeed, as Van Bijsterveld says, but the science behind what motivates humans suggests her carrot and stick approach will most likely fail to give us better teachers. Research even suggests the opposite. The American author and journalist Dan Pink wrote on the topic in his bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009). In research experiments done on the effects of bonuses, “whenever a task called for rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance”, Pink shows. Bonuses only worked as expected when “tasks involved used only mechanical skills”. Teaching, of course, requires even more than rudimentary cognitive skills.

If we are to value the research already done on the topic, we can expect Van Bijsterveld’s “performance bonuses” for teachers to be counterproductive and safely conclude that her experiment in vocational schools is a wasted effort.