– Walk 500 miles

Does this look good to you?

Pizza slice

What would you do to get some? Walk 500 miles? Pass up tickets to the World Series? Give up your spring break?

If not those, then could the promise of pizza get you to show up at a meeting?

Not me. I’ve noticed, however, that this is a lure for students. A huge one. Right now I’m dividing my time between two different colleges, which are so different that I’d think the students at them would be motivated by different rewards, yet I notice a striking prevalence of the words FREE PIZZA on posters and chalkboards announcing club meetings, grammar workshops, and support groups.

Does it work? If you offer a snack to someone to get them to ingest, oh, comma rules, will he stick around long enough to learn how to fix his comma splices?

I’m skeptical.

Around the time I turned 40, I said to my children, as they waited impatiently for the usual Friday night delivery: “I’m so done with pizza.” Really, I’ve had enough. Because I’m not into pizza, if I offered it to students, there would be something condescending in that. I like comma rules, but I doubt that they do, so the pizza would be a cheap trick. A manipulation.

So what if I tempted them with something that tempts me too? Good olives. A roasted potato. Grilled flank steak from a recipe my friend Marcia gave me years ago. Walnuts. Almonds.

(Picture that poster. FREE ALMONDS.)

I’m interested in these questions of motivation. It takes empathy and creativity to persuade people to do what they don’t actually want to do. Yet, we keep relying on the same tired old tricks.

The blog Motivation Matters at Education Week has been covering the cash incentives that schools offer K-12 students to apply themselves to various tasks: reading, enrolling in AP courses, completing homework. Recently, Ken Bushwiller reported that panelists at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting demonstrated that “giving students incentives was not very effective.”

Alex Kjerjulf, a self-identified Chief Happiness Officer, considers the contemporary workplace and claims, “Many people don’t feel motivated at work, and there’s a very simple explanation for this: The motivational techniques used by most managers don’t work.” His blog post, which includes a vivid illustration, is titled, “Why Motivation by Pizza Doesn’t Work.”

Kjerjulf discusses extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and comes down firmly on the side of helping people find their own internal motivation. What is it that employees deeply want to do? (Hint:”eat pizza” is not the answer.)

What is it, I wonder, that students deeply want to do at school? More specifically, what is it that they want to do in my writing class?

Steven Reiss, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, argues that there are more than the two kinds of motivation: “It’s all a matter of individual differences. Different people are motivated in different ways.” His research has theorized 16 basic desires.

This is news to me. Reiss’s findings seem sound. When I think about motivating students to undertake the assignments in my course, however, I could become overwhelmed trying to design incentives for all their human differences. This one might be motivated by pizza, that one by cash, he by the stuff itself, and she by acclaim.

Just as one person cannot be all things to all people, one teacher cannot design all rewards for all students.

Does that leave me back at square one? Hmm, maybe. How about this, though? I’ll offer them free almonds. Well, not really almonds. What if I offered them the promise of the same rewards that motivate me? A chance to talk about writing with other smart people. Good questions. Stuff worth reading. Moments of writing together. A little time, here and there, to get to know something about each other. Mutual support for the long haul and the steps we take alone.

Not everyone will bite, but some will. And there will be plenty for me.


Thank you, Eli Guterman, for putting aside your dinner for five minutes to take the pizza picture. And thanks to a YouTube member for the clip of The Proclaimers doing an acoustic version of “I’m Gonna Be,” which includes the unforgettable line: “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more.” I love it.

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